Nuremberg in Washington

The Road to Nuremberg

by Bradley F. Smith
Basic Books, 303 pp., $14.95

For ten and a half months beginning November 20, 1945, American, British, French, and Russian jurists at Nuremberg sat in judgment on twenty-two German leaders accused of committing aggression against other nations, violating the rules of war, and committing “crimes against humanity”—deportations, enslavement, and genocide. This was an unprecedented event. Never before had a coalition of states organized 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? Why didn’t they resort to summary execution of some of the captured leaders, as the British had suggested earlier in the war? Histories of the Nuremberg trials have justifiably stressed the extraordinary scale of Nazi atrocities as the principal reason why the Allies were moved to attempt this experiment in international law.1 Bradley F. Smith, the author of two books on Nazi Germany and one on the Nuremberg trials themselves, thinks the emphasis should be elsewhere.

In a new and unfortunately narrow and unconvincing book, The Road to Nuremberg, Smith argues that earlier accounts of why the Allies set up the International Military Tribunal “miss the central locus of the decision-making process.” In his view, it was American officials in Washington and not the Allies in general who were principally responsible for the Nuremberg trial system. Moreover, though he acknowledges that the barbarities of the Nazis had much to do with the decision to hold a trial, he believes that a bureaucratic struggle in Washington over the Morgenthau Plan was the initial driving force.

In the summer of 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., urged a postwar policy that would strip Germany of its industry and leave it with only “an agricultural population of small landowners.” Unlike many in the State and War departments, Morgenthau, a prominent Jew, insisted that the scale and horror of the Nazi atrocities had to be faced. He urged punishment of responsible leaders by summary execution without hearing or trial. He argued that trials for Germany’s leaders were likely to “reap a crop of martyrs” and offer “a sounding board for Nazi dogma.” Roosevelt approved Morgenthau’s plan as a way not only of dealing with the leading Nazis and eliminating Germany’s war-making capacity but also of dispelling fears that Britain and the United States would rebuild Germany as a bulwark against the USSR.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the former Republican secretary of state and the most influential member of Roosevelt’s Cabinet, strongly opposed the Morgenthau Plan. According to Smith, Stimson was less concerned than Morgenthau with Nazis and Nazi atrocities, and more interested in practical questions about postwar reconstruction. Morgenthau’s plan, he believed, would bring economic havoc to Germany and Europe and create the conditions for another world war. Arbitrary executions would morally compromise the Allies and deprive them of the chance to put the full story of Nazi crimes on the record. Stimson urged Germany’s economic reconstruction and the punishment of Nazi war criminals…

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