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Misjudgment at Nuremberg’

In response to:

Misjudgment at Nuremberg from the October 7, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In the October 7, 1993, article “Misjudgment at Nuremberg” István Deák claims that the Nuremberg trials were a mistake and a failure. His alternative however has to be recognized as a political and judicial impossibility at that time.

The former East-European allies of Germany had their sovereignty restored by 1946 at least on paper, while the German state did not exist. Germany was divided into four zones of occupation but basically it was divided between East and West. Power rested with the occupation forces. The limited local power was delegated to the Germans by the occupiers, who were deeply divided among themselves on issues of politics, economics and justice. Which nominally German authority or jurisdiction could have been designated to conduct their own war-crime trials under these circumstances?

There are other reasons why the Nuremberg Court was the only possible solution. First, the Soviets insisted on full participation that the Yalta agreement promised. Second, Western public opinion demanded retribution. Third, the Germans were not willing or able to provide the required judiciary service in 1946 even if their institutions had the required unity and autonomy, which they did not. Lastly and most importantly, only an international tribunal could have promulgated the Nuremberg Principle, a major purpose and the major contribution of the Nuremberg process.

Oddly, Deák barely mentions this principle, a major rule incorporated into national and international laws. The rule says that if any individual acts in war contrary to national or international law, or violates the principles of humanity, he will be criminally liable, even if he acted under orders. Subsequently, this rule became a source of embarrassment to numerous governments, and while it lacks a designated enforcement agency, it is still valid and it should have been enforced at many places on many occasions.

Deák, in an attempt to proves his case against Nuremberg, juxtaposes its alleged shortcomings with the post-World War II Hungarian peoples’ courts. While his statistical sources remain unidentified, and even if we accept his low numbers, it is clear that Hungary of eight million people tried and executed more people for war crimes than the Nuremberg or the German courts have from a nation of eighty-six million.

The reason for these disproportionate prosecutions lies in the fact that Hungary was occupied by the Soviet army alone, and consequently real power rested with the chairman of the Allied Commission of Occupation, the Soviet marshal Vorosilov. The Soviets insisted on the executions of prime ministers, ministers of war, chiefs of the general staff and flag officers not for treason or participation in the Holocaust as Deák states, but for participation in the war against the Soviet Union.

For instance, a professor of forensics was executed because, when he examined the remains of the Polish officers murdered at Katyn, he went on the record that the Soviets were responsible. Contrary to Deák’s claim that “the judgments were generally fair,” they were political and hit the guilty and the innocent alike. They executed a papal chamberlain, who, albeit appointed as minister of agriculture by the last and openly Nazi government, could have shared in their guilt by association only. The British ambassador to France, Lord Cooper, could not save him. The peoples’ courts have executed the prime minister of 1938, a man of Jewish descent, who got his job on the recommendation of the British foreign office, and who, while in jail, planned the stabilization of the new Hungarian currency in 1946.

As these and many other cases illustrate, sentences were based on false, doctored or forced evidence. They preferred confessions and knew how to get them. Executions were public and by slow strangulation.

The most arbitrary and bloodthirsty judges and prosecutors were former Nazis, collaborators, or otherwise compromised elements, who could not be independent if they wanted to, and who earned their stripes for the continuing judicial atrocities in the upcoming show-trials of the anti-German general Veress, cardinal Mindszenty, the alleged titoist Laszlo Rajk, or the trials of former Loyalist fighters in the Spanish civil war.

Obviously, the peoples’ courts were not better, more fair, or more effective than the Nuremberg trials. They were the first instruments of Soviet control, they were the precursors of the notorious salami tactics that led to the Rakosi dictatorship by 1948. Thus, an otherwise justified and necessary denazification became an alibi for stalinization. Just because these courts tried and punished the really guilty with the innocent, they were still a travesty. They do not deserve Deák’s approval over the Nuremberg trials, a necessary good, the epitome of decency and due process in comparison.

George Thuróczy
Vero Beach, Florida

István Deák replies:

Professor George Thuróczy takes me to task, among other things, for suggesting that the post-World War II people’s courts in Hungary behaved fairly decently when trying Hungarian collaborators. Professor Thuróczy is correct in saying that several of the judges and prosecutors who served in the Hungarian people’s courts in 1945–1946 later played abominable and disgusting roles in the Stalinist show trials. He is also right to say that one should not ignore the Soviet presence in Hungary when considering the creation of the people’s courts and the selection of the defendants. Still, it is a fact that the courts of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, all liberated by the Western Allies, were even more severe with war-time collaborators and tried proportionally more fascists than the Soviet-dominated courts in both Hungary and Romania. Therefore, despite what Renate Bridenthal and Marion Kaplan claim in their letter published in the January 13 issue, a Soviet-inspired revolution was not necessarily a precondition for prosecuting fascists effectively. Nor are Bridenthal and Kaplan right, incidentally, when they say that it was revolutionary Turkey which condemned the killers of the Armenians after the First World War. On the contrary, it was the conservative ancien régime of the soon-to-be-deposed’ Sultan which, under British prodding, sentenced some Turkish war criminals to death, while the subsequent national revolutionary and progressive government of Kemal Atatürk always acted as if the Armenian massacres had never taken place. George Thuróczy is misinformed about the two people whom he sees as innocent victims of Soviet-inspired justice. The prime minister of “Jewish descent” was Béla Imrédy whom Regent Miklós Horthy appointed in May 1938 because of his financial abilities and his good connections in British financial circles. Yet when Imrédy found that the British would not help Hungary either economically or politically, he switched to the German side. He introduced a very restrictive second anti-Jewish Law and announced a nebulous fascist ideology of his own creation.

Imrédy was forced out of office, in February 1939, by moderate conservatives in his own so-called Government Party who used against him the argument, typical for the period, that he had one Jewish great-grandparent. However, rather than disappearing from the political scene, Imrédy now founded his own national socialist party which, unlike the more plebeian Arrow Cross, appealed to civil servants, businessmen, and professionals. After the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, Imrédy joined the cabinet of General Döme Sztójay as Supreme Minister in Economic Matters (gazdasági csúcsminiszter). This was the government which sent about half a million Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Imrédy fled to Germany at the end of the war but was arrested by the Americans and returned to Hungary in October 1945. The People’s Court in Budapest sentenced him to death on November 25, 1945, and he was hanged, together with other fascist criminals, on February 28, 1946.

Professor Thuróczy is inaccurate in what he says about Ferenc Orsós, his other alleged victim of Soviet-dominated pseudo-justice in Hungary. A professor of forensic medicine at the University of Budapest, Orsós made a name for himself in the 1920s with a method he developed for identifying the length of time a corpse spent in his grave. In April 1943, the German government invited him to Katyn in German-occupied Russia to witness the exhuming of thousands of Polish officers ostensibly murdered by the Soviet political police in the spring of 1941. By then, Orsós was the director of the Institute for Judicial Medicine in Budapest, the president of the Hungarian Chamber of Medicine, and the head of MONE, the fascist association of medical doctors. Professor Orsós became head of a twelve-member international commission of experts at Katyn and reported truthfully on what he had seen, namely that the mass murder had been committed by the Soviets and not, as the Soviet Union was arguing, by the German army which had invaded the Katyn area only in the summer of 1941.

Orsós was not only a medical expert but also an outright fascist and an anti-Semite, who demanded that there be no Jewish doctors at all in a profession about one half of whose members were Jews. Nor was Professor Orsós satisfied with fighting the Jewish threat. On July 18, 1941, during a debate in the Hungarian Upper House on the third anti-Jewish Law forbidding marriage as well as sexual intercourse between Jews and Christians, Orsós demanded that the ban be extended to marriage and intercourse between Gypsies and Hungarians. In presenting his case, Orsós used the typical National Socialist argument that while “pure” Gypsies were Aryans and therefore members of an acceptable race, Gypsies of mixed blood turned out to be the worst criminals, and therefore their procreation must be stopped. As we know, the SS deported and killed during the war mostly such Gypsies whom it judged to be of mixed racial heritage.

Unfortunately for Orsós, the largely aristocratic members of the Upper House made fun of his argument, and did not take action against Gypsy-Hungarian love affairs. Nor was the anti-Nazi Minister of Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer amenable to Orsós’s call that Jewish doctors be kept away from christian patients. Jewish doctors remained free to treat Christian patients until after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. Orsós and the MONE then submitted to the Gestapo a list of Jewish doctors, many of whom died as a result. As in Nazi Germany, the Hungarian medical profession was heavily Nazified, whereas the legal profession, for instance, remained considerably more independent throughout the war.

One might think that Professor Orsós deserved some punishment for his deeds, perhaps even the execution that, according to Professor Thuróczy, was his regrettable fate. In fact, however, Orsós was not executed. On December 6, 1944, he left Budapest with the retreating German army and settled in Halle am Saale, from where he moved to the University of Mainz in West Germany in 1946. There he lived as a respected Professor of Artistic Anatomy until his retirement in 1955. Orsós died in Mainz on July 25, 1962.* Interestingly, both Professor Thuróczy and Professors Bridenthal and Kaplan maintain that, in 1945–1946, the Hungarian people’s courts meted out revolutionary, i.e., Communist, justice in Hungary. George Thuróczy considers this an abomination; Bridenthal and Kaplan see it in a positive light. All three seem to forget, however, that Hungary was not under Communist rule during the first two years after the war but was governed by a coalition of anti-Nazi parties, in which the Communists played a deliberately restrained role. The people’s courts included representatives of these parties and some of the most aggressive prosecutors represented not the Communist but the other political parties.

A prosecution by the representatives of political parties would be totally unacceptable in democratic Hungary today. Yet even in the people’s courts, the defendants were represented by counsel who could and did examine the documents and were allowed to challenge charges; the defendants addressed the public more or less freely, and many of the accused were not sentenced to death. The people’s courts in Hungary were neither better nor worse in their methods and conduct than the courts trying collaborators in, let us say, France. Any form of justice ended, however, when the Communists took power in Hungary in 1947–1948.

Despite its many shortcomings, the Nuremberg international tribunal was more dignified and more concerned with truth than any other court conceivable at that time. Today, however, when an international tribunal is being organized, we should, in my opinion, engage in a thorough re-thinking of what had led to Nuremberg, the alternatives that were perhaps neglected, and the consequences of those tribunals. The Nuremberg court followed a concerted effort by most of the world to defeat Germany and Japan. It is hard to find any sign today that the peoples of the world want to deal seriously with the mass murders being committed daily every day in the name of national ideologies.

  1. *

    On the case of Professor Ferenc Orsós, see, among others, Allen Paul, Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin’s Polish Massacre (Scribner’s, 1991), pp.228–229, and 255; Mária M. Kovács, “Aescupalius militans: Érdekvédelem és politikai radikalizmus az orvosok körében 1919–1945” (Aesculapius militans: Interest protection and political radicalism among medical doctors [in Hungary], Valóság (Budapest) XXVIII/8 (August 1985), pp. 69–82; László Karsi, A cigánykérdés Magyarországon 1919–1945: Ut a cigány Holocausthoz (The gypsy question in Hungary, 1919–1945: Toward a gypsy Holocaust) (Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1992), pp. 36, 40, and 46; and Agnes Kerekes, editor, Magyar Életrajzi Lexikon (Hungarian biographical encyclopaedia), 3 volumes (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó 1967–1981), Volume II, pp. 323–326.

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