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Dec 2001 Journal

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Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory

by Donald Bloxham

Despite the historical emphasis on the prosecution of the ‘major war criminals’ (Hermann Göring and his co-defendants), the Nuremburg trials were only the greatest of a large number of trials of Germans and collaborators across Europe. Following the four-power prosecution of Göring et al, Nuremberg became the scene for a further 12 trials under US auspices of ‘major war criminals of the second rank’: SS leaders, industrialists, professionals, civil servants and soldiers. Alongside these, in each of the Allied zones of occupation in Germany and in every country that had been occupied under Hitler, the local post-war authorities established courts to try defendants whose wartime actions, as distinguished from the crimes of the major war criminals, were specific to those geographical regions.

In my book Genocide on Trial, I examine each of these trial programmes, focusing particularly on British and American policies. I have sought to assess the trials according to the criteria established by the trial planners themselves. Alongside punishment of the guilty, the most powerful argument for holding trials in 1944-45 was to record what had happened in Europe, thereby informing the world of the horrors Nazism had unleashed. Since the trials were, then, to be a part of a grand didactic programme, it was necessary to place them in the context of international politics and of the occupation regimes in Germany, with their propaganda and ‘re-education’ programmes.

What emerges is how much was left out of the record in the post-war period, with ramifications for the subsequent understanding of Nazism. The definitive ‘crime against humanity’ - the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’ - was largely absent, and the sheer extent of German participation in atrocities was unaccounted for. The British punishment programme was restricted by a legal conservatism which only allowed victims to be seen in terms of their nationality and not their ‘racial’ identity, while, as with the Allied responses to the ‘final solution’ itself, British and American officials did not wish to be seen to be putting too great a stress on Jewish suffering. Even at the trial of Göring, the magnitude of the Holocaust was not brought out despite sufficient potential evidence, because the American-led prosecution strategy was concerned more with outlawing war than with examining specific crimes. There was also a marked reluctance to use eyewitnesses - particularly Jewish ones - which hindered the examination of the many undocumented murders in Eastern Europe.

Fate of Jews marginalised

Following the Göring trial and with the onset of the Cold War, British and American diplomats were instrumental in scuppering plans for a second four-power trial of major war criminals in order not to be associated with the USSR. The trial programmes were gradually scaled down, and revealing changes occurred in the occupation re-education schemes. The concentration camps, which had first served as symbols for the crimes of Germany as a whole, were now held up as places where Germans had been victimised by the Nazi regime. Finally, in some cases, to emphasise the general evils of anti-democratic totalitarianism, comparisons were drawn between the Soviet Gulag and the Nazi camps. In this process, the Eastern extermination centres were completely ignored, and the fate of Jews as primary victims of the German camp system was marginalised, as indeed occurred in the press reporting of the trials themselves. It was not judged useful to emphasise Jewish victimhood when the Allies were seeking to influence German attitudes.

Into the 1950s what remained of Allied punishment policy played increasingly into the rhetoric of Germany’s emerging postwar leaders. The latter sought to establish a dividing line between ‘Nazis’ and ‘Germans’, and contended that the Wehrmacht was innocent of the crimes of the SS. Adenauer’s CDU government played off the requirement for West German contributions to West European rearmament against the black record of the German military. Churchill was directly implicated in the premature release of a number of prominent convicted soldiers on spurious medical grounds as the simplest route to placating German opinion. Such was the effect of the Cold War that by 1958 war criminals were nowhere to be found in British and American jails. The attempt to assert the rule of law over international affairs had been profoundly compromised.

Donald Bloxham’s Genocide on Trial is published by Oxford University Press

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