Christopher Hitchens

No Cause to be Proud of our Victor’s Justice

Nuremberg: The Last Battle


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The title of David Irving’s latest volume is well chosen. The Nuremberg trials were indeed the last engagement between the Third Reich and the four principal Allies. They were also the first engagement between those four Allies on many of the points that would later be subsumed under the heading ‘Cold War’. And they constituted, in more than one way, an act of war, without which they would have had no real justification. Since Irving is the principal revisionist historian of the Second World War, and has entered numerous dissents about its motives and its conduct, his oeuvre would be incomplete without a second look at the grandest moral effort of the victors.

‘Military justice’, remarked Georges Clemenceau on another occasion, ‘is to justice what military music is to music.’ (I think he was referring to the Dreyfus case – an episode not yet visited by Irving.) The full name of the Nuremberg court was ‘The International Military Tribunal’, and much of its character and proceeding can be deduced from that fact alone. Since it had to conduct a trial on at least two charges – war crime and conspiracy to wage aggressive war – that were new to jurisprudence, it is hardly surprising that many of the proceedings looked and felt as if they had been designed by a wartime bureaucracy.

But, as Irving begins by pointing out, there was nearly no hearing at all. Many of the Allied leaders wanted to kill the Nazi High Command out of hand, or to have them proclaimed fair game to anybody who apprehended them. At different times, Churchill and Roosevelt both espoused this policy. They also both flirted with the plan put forward energetically (not to say fanatically) by Henry Morgenthau. As Treasury Secretary in Washington, he urged a sort of Carthaginian solution – a Finis Germaniae which would see the country denuded of all industry and its population broken up for slave labour. In the end, this option was discarded, though millions of German civilians were in fact deported into servitude in Russia and France. This makes it the more ironic that it was Joseph Stalin, at the various Great Power summits, who held out for a semblance of legality. Perhaps he had been impressed by the gullibility of the world in the face of the Moscow Trials – at all events his chief lawyer in the Nuremberg business was Andrei Vyshinsky, the ghoulish prosecutor at that drumhead. So, it turns out that we must be grateful to Henry Stimson, George Marshall and Felix Frankfurter (for overruling Morgenthau), to Sir Stafford Cripps (for shaming Churchill on the lynching plan) and to Uncle Joe for wanting what Wild West vigilantes used to term ‘a fair trial with all the fixin’s’.

After reading the whole of Irving’s narrative, however, it is possible to doubt whether this debt of gratitude was worth incurring. Everybody knows by now that there were a few shady things about Nuremberg. Quite apart from the ex post facto problem, there was the exclusion of aerial bombardment of civilians from the bill of war crimes. Then there was the exclusion of the Hitler-Stalin Pact from the evidence about planning for aggressive war. Then there was the inclusion of the Katyn massacre in the bill of indictment against the Germans. Faked and semi-pornographic evidence, such as the fictitious bars of soap made from melted-down Jews, was also allowed to fly around. We have gradually come to learn, also, about outrageously coerced and fantastic confessions, such as that extorted from Rudof Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz who seems to have enjoyed a last cackle while confessing to crimes he could not have hoped in his foulest dreams to have committed. And people have always felt uneasy about other minor elements of ‘victor’s justice’, such as the arbitrary execution of William Joyce.

Irving goes far deeper into the matter. Using the archives of the Justices, especially the papers of the senior American jurist Robert Jackson, he depicts a process that was quite literally made up as it went along, and which suffered from every kind of venality and cynicism. The slimy and ingratiating Albert Speer was allowed to cheat the hangman because he agreed to co-operate, while stupid and loyal senior officers, denied proper counsel, went through the trap door for offences that had also been committed by their opponents. Hitler’s complicit banker Hjalmar Schacht was let off altogether because it was thought – despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt and his perjury – bad form to execute white-collar types. Most of the judges and prosecutors were true to this ethos in spirit as well as in letter, taking each other out for vast lunches and dinners in a city where the population had been reduced to Stone Age subsistence.

There are two elements of mitigation. Justice Jackson, who had been among the small minority to oppose the disgraceful internment of Japanese-Americans, did his best to set a new standard of international law, however ad hoc. In doing so, he spoiled his chances for the Supreme Court back home. And several German defence lawyers professed themselves astonished by the latitude they were allowed. (Even though the court itself made almost no useful distinction between the bench and the prosecution, and in at least one case made one of the prosecutors – a Russian – into a judge.) Irving sets all this out with his customary astringency and efficiency, and produces documents which verge on the hair-curling.

And yet, and yet… I had a mild frisson of annoyance at the very beginning, where Irving congratulated himself on not being ‘politically correct’. Am I the only one who finds this an annoying tic among right-wing shits? I’m not saying that Irving is a right-wing shit. What I will say, however, is the following. He triumphantly points out that much of the footage from the Nazi camps is of ‘starvation and pestilence’ brought on by Allied air raids. Without excusing what we have been taught to call ‘strategic bombing’, was not the condition of the camp inhabitants nonetheless the sole responsibility of those who had deported them? Again, is it really true that Julius Streicher blamed the Jews for ‘ramming multiculturalism and multi-racism’ down European throats, or is this an authorial gloss? When Speer is described as removing the Jews of Berlin to ‘uncertain fates’, where exactly does the uncertainty lie? General Alfred Jodl is described by Irving as ‘signing a death sentence on Germany’ by his capitulation in May 1945. How’s that again? I remember Heinrich Boll, in a letter at the close of his memoirs of the Eastern Front, telling his sons that they would always be able to distinguish their fellow citizens, according to whether they described May 1945 as ‘the defeat’ or ‘the liberation’.

I owe Irving a lot for the punctures he has inflicted on the Churchill cult, and for the light he has shed on the aims and methods of the war. In this volume, for example, he shows that Hitler’s invasion of Norway was undertaken to pre-empt a British one that was well past the planning stage. Like Irving, I am the son of a British naval officer. Daddy did the same thing in Iceland – occupying it before the Nazis could, and not giving a damn for local tastes and sensitivities. The Foreign Office (them again) went to some trouble to stop all this coming up at Nuremberg. But was the moral equivalence as clear as Irving implies? If Captain Irving and Commander Hitchens had taken Norway first, they probably wouldn’t have installed Vidkun Quisling or rounded up all the Norwegian Jews for deportation. If you see what I am driving at.

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