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New Book Explaining the Historical Legacy of the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT)

Interesting new posts at Opinio Juris about a new book that sounds fascinating to read if there were more time in life. Here are excerpts describing the Nuremberg story as told by Kevin Jon Heller:

"Although the twelve U.S. Nuremberg trials judged seven times as many defendants as the International Military Tribunal (IMT) and addressed a broader spectrum of international criminal law issues, including the first genocide prosecutions and the establishment of important principles of medical ethics, they have wallowed in comparative historical obscurity. The absence of meaningful coverage is ironic given, as Kevin notes in his important new book, that chief prosecutor Telford Taylor predicted that many volumes would be written on them and that the government deliberately employed experienced civilian judges, rather than military officers, to ensure they would produce substantive written judgments. But until now, lawyers and scholars interested in these trials had very limited options. One could attempt to wade through the fifteen volume, 15,000+ page, “Green Series” providing “the official abridged records” of the trials. One could consult the summary reports of nine of the twelve trials available in the United Nations War Crime Commissions’ fifteen volume series “Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals” (which omit the Medical, Pohl, and Einsatzgruppen cases from formal coverage). Or one could refer to one of a very small number of books dealing wholly or in part with several individual trials as well as Telford Taylor’s parochial memoirs.

The major achievement of Kevin’s book is to provide what none of the other sources can — an overall discussion and scholarly analysis of the entire NMT process in a single reasonably well indexed volume. Among the book’s many valuable contributions are:

(1) Identifying the unique legal standing of the NMT, which were neither truly international courts, like the IMT, nor national tribunals. Instead, Kevin concludes, these were “inter-allied special tribunals” relying on the Allied Control Council’s sovereign legislative authority in the wake of the disintegration of the central German government, based on the concept ofdebellatio.

(2) Providing a concise history of the NMT process, including the development and evolution of the overall World War II war crimes trial program from the initial Allied decisions to conduct trials to the IMT and subsequent devolution of authority to national tribunals. Although I had a general familiarity with this subject, I still found much to be learned from this history, including particularly details about how both deliberate policy decisions and practical realities determined which cases and defendants were actually tried before these tribunals. Kevin provides useful details about the overall organization of the prosecution and tribunals, staffing, and budget issues.

(3) Describing the factual background of each case, including who the defendants and judges were, what offenses were charged, and the outcome including a helpful appendix identifying the charges and verdict/sentence for each individual accused.

(4) Critically assessing theNMT’s jurisprudence through close analysis of the written opinions produced in each of the cases. It is in this area that Kevin undoubtedly makes his greatest contribution. While some parts of the book could have been written by a competent historian, the sophisticated legal analysis constituting the heart of the book could only have been produced by a real expert on international criminal law.

(5) Documenting how the evolving geopolitical realities of the emerging Cold War resulted in both scaling down the overall scope of the trials and ultimately, to the early release of most defendants sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Anyone who has seen the classic motion picture, Judgement at Nuremberg, a fictionalized account based loosely on the “Justice Trial,” is aware that these pressures existed, but Kevin documents exactly how they came to bear both directly and indirectly, including through the personal prejudices and fears of several individual judges rather than just via “outside” interventions as portrayed in the film.

(6) Assessing the overall legacy of the NMT, including specifically the influence that the judgments have had on modern international criminal law through critical analysis of citations to these trials by contemporary courts, including a specific (and highly critical) focus on the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)."

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About Kirk

Since becoming a lawyer in 1983, Kirk’s over 30 years of practice have focused on advising a wide range of corporations, associations, and individuals (as both plaintiffs and defendants) on both tort and commercial law issues centered around “mass torts.”

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