Nothing is stranger in the human conscience than its attitude to war. War involves killing people. That is what war is about. In ordinary times, killing is regarded as the worst of crimes, often as the only crime which justifies counter-killing or, as it is fancifully called, capital punishment. When states fall out, killing becomes noble and patriotic and the greatest killers are the most admired. The killing must still be done according to rule. At one time, only combatants could be killed. Nowadays, it is all right to kill civilians so long as it is done indiscriminately and with some pretense that it is weakening the other side’s will or ability to go on fighting. Move one further down the ladder of morality, and we reach reprisals—a method used by every occupying or, as it usually claims to be, civilizing Power. At the bottom is the planned killing of defenseless civilians, because they belong to the wrong creed, class, or race. This, too, has often been practiced by supposedly civilized peoples. No American loses sleep over the extermination of the Red Indians. No Englishman worries about the systematic starvation of the Irish in 1846 or over the sepoys blown from the mouth of cannon after the Indian Mutiny.

Crimes against humanity are the common stuff of history. We are more troubled about these crimes nowadays, because we imagined that mankind had become gentler and more tolerant. The German crimes of the Second World War were atrocious by any standard. Attila could have done no worse. But they seemed particularly atrocious because they were done in the twentieth century with all the resources of civilization. No one who reads even a fragment of this criminal record can doubt that the total destruction of German power was an unmixed blessing. The victors for once fought for a worthy cause. They threw away much of their principles by a moral muddle when they equated crimes against humanity with any actions taken against themselves. There are few episodes of modern history more nauseating than the proceedings at Nuremberg, where the victors solemnly wrestled with the problem of “aggressive war,” that is any war or even political action against the settlement established by the victors of the First World War.

Some of the alleged crimes at Nuremberg were even more grotesque. Poor demented Hess paid a heavy penalty for having tried, however wrongheadedly, to make peace between Germany and Great Britain. He was sacrificed solely in order to prove that the British government had never contemplated cooperating with Hitler against Soviet Russia—a lost opportunity which is now lamented by many respected persons. Hess had nothing to do with the crimes against humanity—he was already a prisoner of war in England (again unjustifiably) when they were committed. Nor was any proof ever produced that he had been involved in the plans for “aggressive war.” It was simply stated that, holding a high decorative rank in the Nazi state, he “must have known.” Hess is still in prison. Apparently it would be “illegal” to release him without Soviet permission.

MANY OF THE OTHER ACCUSATIONS at Nuremberg were almost as flimsy. Highminded people were generally agreed that Germany had been unjustly treated at the end of the First World War. The Germans were promised redress and the triumph of justice. No redress followed. The Germans then took the law into their own hands and won by superior strength what evenhanded justice had failed to give them. This is the method still followed by every state when it is powerful enough. The passions of war are said to have been strong, or even irresistible, in 1945. This is doubtful. There is little evidence that ordinary people wanted the killing of their chief enemies. The advocates of revenge were found among those who are expected to be saner and more dispassionate than their fellows—a Judge of the Supreme Court, for instance, and a future Lord Chancellor of England. Churchill said all that needed saying about the Nuremberg trials when he remarked to General Ismay: “You and I must take care not to be on the losing side next time.”

The hypocrisy of Nuremberg was revolting enough in 1945. It exceeds all bounds when it is maintained in 1967, over twenty years afterwards. Mr. Eugene Davidson has compiled at enormous length a biographical collection of the accused at Nuremberg. Here they are, from gorgeous Goering down to insignificant Fritzsche, the radio commentator. The biographies are pretty sketchy, slapdash stuff hotted up in a flashy style and evidently assuming that any kind of rubbish is good enough for such scoundrels. It is really rather hard that the thing should be done so badly. After all these years, there are some questions perhaps worth discussing. One, which can perhaps never be answered, is: what on earth did the prosecutors have in mind? The Russians presumably were so used to denouncing the hyenas of fascism, capitalism, or Trotskyism, and so habituated to propaganda trials that they regarded Nuremberg as an inevitable epilogue to their brief wartime appearance as champions of freedom. The Americans at the opposite extreme suffered from self-righteousness. They really regarded geopolitics of the Rosenberg variety as intellectually wicked and therefore deserving of capital punishment. Rosenberg was another who had a rough deal: he tried to protect many Russians from extermination and was killed solely for his beliefs, just like a heretic in the hands of the Inquisition. The British, to my mind, behaved worst of all. They acquiesced in these judicial murders, indeed did more than anyone else to give them a respectable appearance, solely in order to curry favor with the two Great Powers.


The oddest side of the Nuremberg trial was the attempt to set a standard. It would have made sense to grab all leading Germans whose names had hit the headlines and kill them. But here degrees of guilt were solemnly weighed, and some of the accused were even acquitted. These latter were often the worst of the lot. If it be accepted that Nazi rule had done great harm to Germany and to the rest of the world, then Papen was the most guilty man: he had actually put Hitler into power. Schacht ran him close: the man who saved Nazi Germany from bankruptcy. Both escaped. On the other hand, Speer was caught on the charge of making German economic mobilization work. He had helped to prolong the war—a grave offense in the eyes of the victors. The treatment of the generals and admirals was even more surprising. They had waged war, as it was presumably their duty to do, and more than one Allied commander wished to testify in their favor. None was allowed to do so. The tribunal, or those who ran it, went out of their way to underline the real significance of the verdicts: the accused were condemned for the crime of having lost, and particularly for behaving in a disreputable way. Bankers and gentry were exempt from the general rule.

THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL did infinite harm to standards of decency and morality. There are degrees in wickedness, and the Germans under Nazi leadership had committed some acts which were wicked even amidst the wickedness of war. These were the crimes against humanity. Yet how could the Soviet judges feel strongly against such crimes, when they were busy covering up the massacre at Katyn? How, for that matter, could the British and Americans when they had the supposed guilt of Dresden on their hands? And even the worst Nazis had not succeeded in poisoning the life of future generations, which the American government had just done with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which all four prosecuting powers were hoping to do in the near future. All the Nazi crimes put together seem very small beer compared to the preparations for nuclear warfare. Even by the standard of Nuremberg, Goering was the only man who ended with his stature enhanced. In other circumstances, he would have become a national hero, as Napoleon (a much worse war criminal than Goering) did.

This did not happen, and the outcome sheds a bright, and discreditable, illumination on German behavior. Very many Germans had been Nazis. Most Germans had supported the Nazi government until the end of the war. Now they were all concerned to demonstrate their innocence. The Germans are often said to be a proud people. This is not the case. They are an arrogant people and, not surprisingly therefore, a servile people also. As long as Hitler succeeded, they worshipped him. When he failed, they turned around and worshipped the Allies instead. Goering caused embarrassment by defying the Allies when all other Germans were fawning on them. Hence the Germans were particularly eager to see him dead and buried. Of course Goering had many flaws as a national hero. But a nation which had any pride and self-respect would have said: Better Goering than nobody. Instead they loaded their collective guilt on to Goering and thus appeared from that moment in their shining and repulsive ignorance. All Germans sang the same chorus, as they still do: I wasn’t there when it happened.

The Auschwitz trial was a show piece of this attitude. This was a trial by Germans under German law. The court was committed to the fantastic proposition that the Nazi state was a state of law and yet that crimes could be committed while carrying out the state’s instructions. Hannah Arendt brings out this contradiction in her admirable Introduction, though she could have emphasized it more strongly. If it were once admitted that Auschwitz was criminal in itself, rather than in its minor operations, then the entire Nazi undertaking was criminal, and with it an entire generation. Many of the higher state officials and many of the judges were Nazis, or as they were called later, ex-Nazis. What else could men be who had led public careers between 1933 and 1945? If they were all condemned, then public and political life in Germany would come to an end. Eliminate the ex-Nazis, and there would be little left. It is not surprising that ordinary German people have been unmoved by the Auschwitz trial. They have remarked quite rightly that the little men are being prosecuted—though ineffectively—and the high-ups escape. The book itself, apart from its Introduction, is to my mind unreadable. The deeds recounted in it are loathsome beyond belief.


I REALLY DO NOT KNOW what ought to have been done with the Germans in 1945, or for that matter should be done in 1967. Their crimes were unspeakably vile. Somehow they have been handled so that the evil is excused and glossed over. The victors lost their moral advantage—an advantage which was real—when they mixed up crimes against humanity and aggressive war. I daresay that the British government did not foresee Suez nor the American government Vietnam. Latter-day Germans, some of whom have ideals, fall into equally hypocritical courses when they are content to prosecute the little men. The real answer, I suppose, is that the German crimes were beyond judgment. The individual must find an answer of his own. One answer is to keep clear of all Germans, unless they have a clear democratic record, which means that they must have been exiles between 1933 and 1945. No one of the war-generation should go to Germany unless compelled to do so, and then he should beware of his German contemporaries: they were all in it. A more urgent answer is to protest against the similar war crimes of one’s own government. One expects this kind of thing from the Germans. All the more reason to resist it at home. Not that resistance does much good. The nuclear weapons are still being made, and Vietnam is still being invaded.

Indignation against criminals and their accomplices sometimes takes an odd form. In his recent book, Death in Rome, Robert Katz tells the story of a wicked German reprisal: 335 Italians murdered in answer to a partisan attack. This was a routine operation under German occupation. Similar reprisals happened a hundred times over in Yugoslavia. This one seems particularly wicked because it took place in Rome. That is an odd moral judgment for a start. Even odder is where Mr. Katz puts the guilt. He is eager to slap the blame on the Pope. I have never been able to understand why non-Catholics demand a high standard of behavior and morality from the Pope. Roman Catholics are entitled to do so. If others do, they are surely admitting the Pope’s claim to special sanctity and authority. The non-Catholic, if he is sensible, should regard the Pope as an elderly man at the head of a large business organization. Would Mr. Katz wax so indignant if some Roman banker or industrialist had remained silent in the face of the massacre? And yet there is no difference except in the eyes of Roman Catholics. I do not care for these horror stories being whipped up in order to take a kick at the Pope. My motto is: fair play for the Pope and even for Goering.

When one considers how much wickedness there is in the world and how atrocious are the crimes committed in this century, it is incredible that we keep going at all or that any scrap of human decency remains. Yet there is quite a lot of it in the world—even, they tell me, in Germany. The most decent people, on the whole, are those who stay at home and do not interfere in the affairs of others. As a safe rule-of-thumb, if one wishes to discover who are in training as the next batch of war criminals, one need only look for those governments which maintain armed forces outside their own country. First you get war. Then come reprisals and after that extermination. All in the name of some wonderful cause, such as German racialism or international justice. Non-interference is the only international virtue.

This Issue

February 23, 1967