William Shawcross, author of Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, discusses the impact of the Nuremberg trials on present day military tribunals.
NARRATOR: This is Voices on Genocide Prevention from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
JEAN FREEDBERG: Welcome to the Holocaust Museum. We’re really very honored that you’re joining us this evening. Just start us out by saying, why is it important to bring the perpetrators of the world’s worst crimes to justice?
WILLIAM SHAWCROSS: This argument about giving justice to the Nazi leaders was very intense at the end of the Second World War. Stalin wanted to just execute 100,000 Germans from the General Staff. Churchill said, “Over my dead body,” but Churchill thought that it would be simplest, and therefore best, to execute the top ten Nazis whom we captured, from Hitler on down. By 1945, Roosevelt had come to a different conclusion, that there must be some kind of trial, and when, after Roosevelt’s tragic death in April 1945, Truman took the same view, and appointed Justice Robert Jackson to create a tribunal in Europe. And Jackson set off and did exactly that. But even that was controversial at the time, and his superior, the Chief Justice, Harlan Fiske-Stone, called it “a lynching expedition, with which I want to have nothing to do.” But I don’t think it was a lynching expedition, I think Jackson performed an extraordinary service to the world. In a few months only, he gathered all the evidence, he and the US Army, which had found a lot of documentary evidence, and taken it to Paris, and he helped create a court and institutions, and the way in which the court would proceed. And the court opened only a few months after the end of the war, in November 1945, and it finished its business in July 1946—an astonishing speed. Today, it’s impossible that any justice, or almost anything else, could be done with such dispatch.
JEAN FREEDBERG: Your father was the Chief British Prosecutor at Nuremberg. How has that affected you in your life and your sense of what is needed to be done?
WILLIAM SHAWCROSS: My father was the Chief British Prosecutor, he was appointed Attorney General in the government that came in just after the end of the war, and as Attorney General he automatically became Chief British Prosecutor. And I was born in 1946, just after—just before the end of the trial, actually. But throughout the ’50s, I remember listening with morbid fascination to gramophone recordings of his speeches for the prosecution, and I heard him describe eyewitness accounts of Jews being murdered and entire families of Jews being murdered in pits in the Ukraine, by SS Officers, and for a long time, I couldn’t understand why my father had seen such horrors, until he explained to me, that he was reading from the diary of Germans who had witnessed them. So I grew up very conscious of Nuremberg, and Nuremberg was, perhaps, obviously, because of being my father’s son, something that was talked about quite a lot, and he was quite—it was something that was talked about quite a lot, and I grew up with a sort of familiarity of it, if you like.
JEAN FREEDBERG: What do you think has been the legacy of Nuremberg for justice after war, for creating a sense of bringing the perpetrators of the world’s worst crimes to justice?
WILLIAM SHAWCROSS: I think Nuremberg was a great success. I think that. There are others who complained at the time, that it was a lynching party, as the Chief Justice Stone did. And others said it was victors’ justice. And it’s true, I think perhaps the biggest blemish on the court was that the Soviet Union was an equal partner with the democratic countries—Britain, France and the United States—in sitting in judgment on the Nazi crimes, because the Soviet Union had committed crimes at least as terrible as those committed by the Nazis. And that was a difficulty, and it’s a blemish, as I say. It was essential that the Allies together carry out this judgment and this tribunal, but it was something that—which was distasteful, clearly. For the democratic judges and prosecutors, but it had to be done.
JEAN FREEDBERG: In this age now of new forms of crimes, terrorism, crimes perpetrated by non-state actors, what do you think, what needs to be done, how can we address bringing them to justice, and your book addresses many of these challenges.
WILLIAM SHAWCROSS: It’s become much, much more complicated since Nuremberg. In Nuremberg, it was very simple. There were 22 Nazis whom we captured, and we put them on trial, and they were given the presumption of innocence, but there was no right of appeal. Once the tribunal had reached its judgment, that was it. Nowadays, there’s—and for example, in Guantanamo, there is a right of appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. If anyone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is convicted in Guantanamo, he has the entire apparatus of the federal system of American justice to fall back upon. And that will make the trial much longer, of course, but in a way, you could say that if any Nazi defendant was transported by time machine from the dock in Nuremberg to Guantanamo, he would be astonished, and I suppose overjoyed, by the extra privileges and safeguards that were offered him by the United States. It’s an extraordinary progress, if you like, on Nuremberg, that Guantanamo represents. Not many people see Guantanamo that way, but actually that is a fair way to see it, I think, and particularly because now the United States has put in charge of the military commissions, a very distinguished military lawyer, called General Mark Martins, who was a former infantry man and has worked in the rule of law campaigns in both Iraq, and Afghanistan, and he’s thought very deeply about the role of military commissions in American history, and the drawbacks, and the assets that they can bring to judgment today. And he makes the point that most terrorists brought to trial in the United States will continue to be tried in the federal system. But there are some, namely Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others who are in Guantanamo already, who will be tried there now, and that is a decision the Obama Administration has made and I think it’s the correct one. I think that any president of the United States should have all the methods of bringing justice at his disposal.
JEAN FREEDBERG: What is the significance to you, of having tonight’s event here in the Holocaust Museum?
WILLIAM SHAWCROSS: It’s very moving for me to be in the Holocaust Museum to discuss these issues. I feel very—humble is an overused word. I feel very nervous at my inability to understand and adequately express the momentousness of the legacy of Nuremberg, if you like, and the horrific nature of the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, and the—and it’s chilling to recognize and to realize that that anti-Semitism continues in other strong and violent forms today.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.