Kim Christian Priemel’s The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence examines the conceptualization, organization, and course of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg of 1945–1946 and the twelve “successor” trials conducted by the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT) from 1946 to 1949. “Betrayal” refers to the argument of the prosecution that the crimes of the Nazi regime were a result of Germany’s departure from the norms of Western and European civilization. Yet Priemel’s impressive close reading of the thousands of pages of trial transcripts makes clear that while the theories of Germany’s historical Sonderweg (special path) contributed to the prosecution’s interpretative framework, the trials themselves were conventional contests about fact, evidence, and the law. As in multiple previous accounts of the trials, the American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson and counsel for the prosecution Telford Taylor loom large. In addition, Priemel’s account offers extensive material on Jackson and Taylor’s British, French, and Soviet counterparts and a multitude of less well-known Allied lawyers, judges, and academic advisors, as well as on defendants and their remarkably unapologetic and experienced team of lawyers. Priemel’s research in the American, French, and British government files and in the papers of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys expands our understanding of the debates that took place among the Allied prosecution teams. It also advances our grasp of the cynical, if clever, strategies of the defense. Yet, as Priemel notes, “the most important sources … remain the verbatim transcripts of the actual proceedings” (21). They include the twenty-two published volumes of the IMT transcripts, plus another twenty volumes of evidence offered in court. Meanwhile, the NMT’s “so-called Green Series is but a digest of the original 135,000 pages of transcript, not counting the myriad legal briefs and more than 185,000 pages of trial evidence” (22). Priemel’s use of the published and unpublished body of evidence offers an example of a historian who expands our understanding of events by looking closely at the most obvious but less frequently consulted evidence. Priemel describes works by a group of scholars, including Franz Neumann, A. J. P. Taylor, Edmond Vermeil, Alexander Gerschenkron, and Friedrich Hayek, who, despite their diverse political, disciplinary, and conceptual approaches, agreed that “the German nation had fatefully deviated from a common trajectory of Western civilization with its liberal market economies, pluralist democracies, individualist concepts of man, and the rule of law, had modernized belatedly and incompletely, and had compensated for these deficiencies by asserting an aggressive, militarist nationalism” (57, emphasis added). The views of “Marxists … the Social Imperialism school in historiography, the neoliberal economists, Realist international relations scholars avant la lettre … coalesced sufficiently to speak of a process of epistemic convergence” (59), one that influenced the design of the Nuremberg trials. In chapter 3, Priemel focuses on the role of the United States Office of Strategic Services, the cooperation of its director, William Donovan, with Robert Jackson, and the contribution of its Research and Analysis Branch (R&A), whose Nuremberg team was led by Neumann. Previous studies by Michael Salter and Raffaele Laudani have documented key aspects of these R&A contributions, including Herbert Marcuse’s essay of June 1945 on the “Nazi Plans to Dominate Europe,” which linked prewar policies and institutions to wartime crimes. The OSS reports of summer 1945 “furnished the analytical backbone to the US prosecution’s attempt at Nuremberg to wrap the whole trial narrative into the cloak of the conspiracy charge” (73–74): the prosecution’s argument that political leaders, public servants, the military leadership, and business had conspired to wage a war of aggression and domination. “What [the R&A studies] did not offer was actual proof of individual guilt which could be cited in the courtroom. It was the story without the facts” (86). The trials provided the facts, but in so doing they neither confirmed nor refuted the interpretative framework that shaped the prosecution’s initial theory of the case. While acknowledging criticisms of the trials, Priemel writes “that the endeavor was, on balance, a remarkable accomplishment: unprecedented then and unparalleled to this day” (vi). Donald Bloxham, among others, has argued that the Nuremberg trials failed to focus on the mass murder of European Jewry. Priemel also points to the marginality of the Holocaust in the prosecution’s opening statements in fall 1945. However, “by spring 1946 … the prosecution had given both the judges and the audience a remarkably broad and comprehensive picture of the Shoah … No other crime had been mentioned as often and as persistently, in such grisly detail and on a comparative geographical scale. Jews were by far the most often mentioned religious or ethnic group in court (on average more than twenty times each day), with Russians, Poles, and French trailing far behind. The Holocaust’s synonyms ‘annihilation,’ ‘extermination,’ and ‘Final Solution’ … littered the trial’s transcript. No regular observer of the trial could avoid concluding that the murder of European Jews had been consistently at the centre of the proceedings” (119). By spring 1946, the British chief prosecutor at the IMT displayed “a steep learning curve and the realization that what defined National Socialism was the attempt to exterminate a whole people, a multitude of individuals and families, which had almost succeeded” (120). Priemel’s examination of the defense’s strategies, both in the IMT and in the successor trials of the NMT, is particularly interesting. One of the most prominent defense lawyers, Otto Kranzbühler, repeatedly tried and failed to argue that the Allies had done similar things and that the trial was based on hypocrisy. These tu quoque (you also) arguments failed. Equally unsuccessful were indignant rejections of accusations of collective guilt that the prosecution was not making. Priemel writes: “By misrepresenting the historical explanation of ‘Why Germany?’ as the attempted criminalization of their nation, the German lawyers managed to present a stark dichotomy between an interpretation which held only the Third Reich’s topmost leadership responsible and one which saddled each and every German with guilt. This successfully obscured the prosecution’s case for a middle-way which, in Jackson’s words, did ‘not seek to convict the whole German people of crime’ but also should ‘not serve to absolve the whole German people except 21 men in the dock’” (133). The indignant rejection of an accusation that the prosecution had not made remained an element of West German hostility to the Nuremberg trials in subsequent years. Priemel’s close reading of texts serves him well in his examination of Albert Speer’s final statement in court, one that benefited from the “denial and dishonesty” of fellow IMT defendants who preceded him. Priemel correctly observes that “Speer hardly apologized, and admitted individual guilt only indirectly, if at all … the only victims he named were the German people. Instead he drew a larger picture of the abstract forces of technology and totalitarianism” and placed blame on the “perils of modernity” (141). Priemel’s close reading of the transcript is welcome, but one wishes that the author and editor had offered more citation and fewer paraphrases to buttress Priemel’s case. Priemel offers a favorable view of the court verdict: “Despite indisputable shortcomings, the tribunal had worked with impressive fairness, the prosecution had produced, overall, a highly convincing case within just a few months, and the verdicts gave evidence to the judges’ scrupulous deliberation and avoided indiscriminate sentencing” (148). However, he views this success as happening despite, not because of, the original theory of the prosecution. The trial’s “most significant flaw … was one of design. The double concept of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘aggressive war,’ so dear to the American approach, was a magnificent example of a beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact … Overall the conspiracy proved unfortunate as a heuristic device to structure the trial and to convince the audience, especially the judges.” It also “invited apologist interpretations: narratives of absolute, totalitarian dictatorship, run by society’s lunatic fringe, of which the Germans have been the first victims rather than agents, collaborators, and fellow travelers” (149). Though such stories about evil elites and victimized masses percolated in apologetic politics in both postwar West and East Germany, Priemel himself shows that the trials offered massive evidence that collaboration among elites was significant and not restricted to “society’s lunatic fringe.” Chapters 5 through 8 deal with the twelve trials conducted by the United States, not the four Allied powers, between 1946 and 1949 in Nuremberg. Priemel again examines the origins of the indictments, selection of defendants, strategies of the prosecution and the defense, and the judges’ reasoning in their verdicts. Telford Taylor and his large team of 1,750 people, including 150 lawyers as well as interpreters, translators, clerical staff, and analysts, indicted leading officials in the Ministries of Economics, Justice, and Propaganda, the Military High Command, the SS, and doctors involved in medical crimes, as well as executives of IG Farben and Krupp. The NMT trials displayed the same pattern evident in the IMT, one in which the prosecution’s theories, drawing on interpretations of German history and the Nazi regime, gave way to the necessities of ascertaining the guilt or innocence of specific individuals for specific actions. Membership in the SS, the high ranks of the military, and executive positions in IG Farben was a crucial attribute by which the prosecution identified defendants and shaped indictments, but it was not sufficient for establishing members’ guilt. Priemel’s descriptions of the American judges in a number of the NMT cases are of particular interest. Many came from the American South and Midwest, had conservative political views, knew little about European or German history, and were unsympathetic to the prosecution’s focus on the conspiracy indictment. A few actually expressed racist and antisemitic views, yet in cases where they were convinced by the evidence, they returned many guilty verdicts. In trials of officials in the SS Race and Settlement Main Office and the Einsatzgruppen Trial (see Hilary Earl’s The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945–1958: Atrocity, Law, and History ), the NMT dealt directly with the issue of genocide. Priemel points out the importance of the Holocaust at the NMT trials as well, where punishment was “proportionate to the defendants’ proximity to atrocities and the Holocaust” (306). The defendants’ efforts in these trials to present themselves as banal clerks rather than as ideological warriors, a striking preview of the defense that became famous when Adolf Eichmann used it fifteen years later in Jerusalem, failed to convince the courts. In the trial of the German High Command, it was not theories of German history, but evidence of orders for and knowledge of scorched earth tactics, fatal neglect of POWs, shootings of political officers of the Red Army, massacres masked as anti-partisan warfare, and collaboration with the SS in genocide against Jews and Slavs that proved decisive. Priemel’s last chapters explore the extent to which arguments first made by defendants and defense lawyers in the trials found echoes in the amnesty campaigns in West Germany in the early years of the Cold War. In concluding his deeply researched and conceptually astute study, Priemel writes that “the prosecution manifestly failed to appreciate the basic rule of criminal trials that each case be tried on its own merits. Historical explanations did not substitute for criminal evidence” (408). It is an odd conclusion because it is contradicted by the massive “criminal evidence” that Priemel indicates was offered by the prosecution and revealed in the trials and by the guilty verdicts the evidence produced. Did this accomplishment not owe something to the ways in which historical interpretation and traditional legal practice reinforced, rather than conflicted with, one another? © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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