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The Nazis on Trial

In response to:

Nuremberg in Washington from the February 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Profesor Robert Dallek’s review of my Road to Nuremberg [NYR, February 18] belongs in a hoary tradition where the reigning captain of erudition in a field uses the opportunity offered by The New York Review to slowly broil a heretic. In reply I will play my allotted part and while feigning deep anguish contend that the reviewer is better at stoking fires than at finding an appropriate place to put them.

At the moment Professor Dallek is the leading champion of a field of academic history which holds that one can invoke “the idealistic impulses” of the American people to answer any question regarding United States policy during World War II. This approach evokes warm applause from nostalgic liberals and World War II veterans, cheerful attacks from conservative rightists who now welcome opportunities to pummel liberals, and a few subdued hisses from the three New Left revisionists who have survived the 1970s.

Confronting the subject of the Nuremberg trial, Professor Dallek believes that the question at issue is why the American government decided to punish German leaders at the end of World War II. Having persuaded himself that this is the vital matter, he predictably concludes that the solution lies in “the idealistic impulses” of the American people.

That the Allied governments decided to punish the leaders of the Third Reich is not the least bit surprising, however, nor is it a matter for serious historical enquiry. The horrors of World War II made it inevitable that at war’s end Hitler and his colleagues would be brought to book. Therefore, the significant point at issue is not why the Allies chose to punish, but why they selected such a peculiar instrument to do the job.

The Nuremberg trial plan aimed to punish the Nazi leaders and members of a series of criminal organizations (ranging from the SS to the Reich cabinet) for a hierarchy of offenses including traditional war crimes and “crimes against humanity.” But the chief emphasis in the trial plan was placed on participation in a criminal conspiracy, membership in criminal organizations, “planning, preparing, or waging aggressive war,” and perpetrating pre-war crimes and atrocities.

Since the trial plan developed by the United States government was announced to the world in May-June 1945 at the very moment in which public outrage over the death camps was at its peak, the emphasis on misdeeds other than Nazi mass murder, is at least odd. The fact that it contained numerous innovations ranging from an international trial of government leaders to a prosecution of criminal organizations in which mere membership merited punishment, makes it seem odder still. The most cursory examination of the documents used in the development of the plan* shows that Treasury Department idealists were opposed while Justice Frankfurter supported it; the conservative judge advocate general was against it and Secretary of War Stimson (hardly a flaming liberal idealist) was its major champion. Furthermore, Franklin Roosevelt does not appear to have been much interested in the question either way.

So what was the driving force which produced this unusual war crimes prosecution system? I think the record shows that the vital formulative factor lay in the battle over German occupation policy set off by Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau’s plan to de-industrialize Germany and shoot Nazi leaders without trial. Perhaps I am wrong, but by no stretch of the imagination will a romantic invocation of vague “idealistic impulses” explain the peculiarities of the trial plan or the length of its gestation period (September 1944-May 1945).

Of course, if we follow the customary script for review controversies, Professor Dallek will return with more idealistic citations from Life magazine and Wendell Wilkie’s One World, and no hard statements about the trial plan’s oddities or explanations of why it failed to achieve the purge of Germany its creators desired. But is it too much to hope that readers will decide that narcissistic American public opinion polls are not enough. We need much detailed study of American government decision making by people who have a sufficient handle on foreign conditions and languages to put these decisions in a meaningful context.

Bradley F. Smith

Santa Cruz, California

Robert Dallek replies:

Mr. Smith’s letter is no more convincing than his book.

His suggestion that The Road to Nuremberg is a form of heresy is preposterous. His book is about as heretical as the World Almanac.

Smith complains that my review focused on the obvious issue of “why the American government decided to punish German leaders at the end of World War II” instead of on “why they selected such a peculiar instrument to do the job.” Such a distortion is unworthy of him. The central concern of my review was with the unprecedented decision by a coalition of states to establish an international military tribunal to punish war criminals. “Why did the Allies choose to try Nazi leaders before a new kind of international tribunal on unprecedented charges?” I asked at the start of my critique. This is the question Smith discussed in his book, and it is the one I put at the center of my review as well. Since I faithfully described the thesis of his book, Mr. Smith should have shown the same care in describing the contents of my review.

The rest of Mr. Smith’s letter is essentially a restatement of what he says in his book. But he still does not explain how a bureaucratic battle over the Morgenthau plan could have been “the vital formulative factor” in the decision to choose a trial over summary executions in punishing the Nazis. By October 1944, the Morgenthau plan had gone into eclipse, but the “gestation period” of the trial plan, according to Smith, went on until May 1945. The debate over Morgenthau’s plan may have contributed something to the decision to go to Nuremberg, though I would hardly call it “vital.” While the wartime mood of idealism in the United States will not explain “the peculiarities of the trial plan,” and I never said it did, it goes far to answer the more fundamental question of why the American government favored a complex trial with uncertain results rather than swift executions by a firing squad. Had Mr. Smith given some attention to this subject, he would have written a more thoughtful and convincing book.

  1. *

    Now published: Bradley F. Smith (ed.), The American Road to Nuremberg (Hoover Institution Press, 1982).

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