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2011 Days of Remembrance Browse

Justice and Accountability after the Holocaust


[Text on screen] The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II left Europe shattered and transformed, with more than 20 million civilians killed. The Germans and their collaborators persecuted and killed millions of civilians they considered politically hostile, racially inferior, or socially unfit. This included the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children. What do justice and accountability mean after the Holocaust?

Regina Spiegel, Holocaust Survivor
After the liberation, this Russian — he happened to be a colonel in the army — you know what he told me? He said, “We will give you guns, and you can go around. Any German you see you can shoot.” And we’re thinking to ourselves, “What in the heck is he talking about?” I didn’t like what they were doing to us. So why should I go do that? Justice, yes — vengeance, no.

[Text on screen] Victorious in war, the major Allied powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union — established an International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, to prosecute Nazi leaders for their crimes.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Chief Nuremberg War Crimes Prosecutor
That four great nations flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power ever has paid to reason.

Edna Friedberg, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The International Military Tribunal, which we more generally know of as the Nuremberg Trial, began in November 1945, so only months after the end of the war in Europe, and it lasted for one year until the verdicts were issued.

John Q. Barrett, Professor of Law and Justice Jackson Biographer
The defendants are the people who are surviving principal Nazi leaders. So you have the Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Hitler’s number two. Rudolph Hess, who had been Hitler’s number three. You have Ribbentrop, who was the foreign minister. You have the military leaders of the army and of the navy.

Peter Black, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The indictment had four counts: conspiracy to wage aggressive war, waging aggressive war, traditional war crimes, and count four was brand new — crimes against humanity — crimes against civilians that were divorced entirely from military operations, as well as crimes we would later call genocide.

John Q. Barrett, Professor of Law and Justice Jackson Biographer
They don’t have the word Holocaust, but in a sense, over the course of the year of the international trial at Nuremburg, they are discovering the enormity of it.

Edna Friedberg, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Much of what we know about the history of the Holocaust first emerged at the International Military Tribunal. For example, the number of six million Jewish victims appeared at that trial. Testimony about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto emerged at Nuremberg. Additionally, the tribunal was heavily covered by the press in a way that public knowledge of atrocities had never before been reported.

John Q. Barrett, Professor of Law and Justice Jackson Biographer
At the end of the process, September 30 and October 1st of 1946, the International Military Tribunal returns its judgment.

Peter Black, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Nineteen were convicted, twelve were sentenced to death and three were acquitted. As important as the convictions were perhaps the most important verdicts were the acquittals. The acquittals gave the trial instant credibility.

Michael Marrus, History Professor, University of Toronto
By and large, the trial was fair. Defendants had a chance to defend themselves. The four powers presented a case that was based on law. And the result was, what I think has been properly termed as, the origins of international criminal law.

LTC Jeff Bovarnik, Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
The most critical take away for Nuremburg is the fact that the international community can hold a state responsible, more importantly individuals responsible, for atrocities.

Peter Black, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Previously a viable defense could have been, “Well, it wasn’t my responsibility. I had orders to do it and if I didn’t carry out those orders, I would have been shot.” The tribunal took away that defense.

Mike Newton, Professor of Law and Former Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
Nuremburg showed us once and for all that when you have a regime that harnesses and misuses the power of law, that that doesn’t have to stand.

LTC Jeff Bovarnik, Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
Governments are going to be held accountable under international law in the eyes of the international community. And that’s essentially what happened at Nuremburg that’s persisted to this day.

[Text on screen] The Trial of leading Nazi officials before the International Military Tribunal is the best known of the postwar trials. Many nations subsequently tried tens of thousands of others for their role in Nazi crimes. Even so, many perpetrators of the Holocaust and other Nazi-sponsored crimes evaded prosecution. Still, the quest for justice continued. Fifteen years after the first Nuremberg conviction, one of the key perpetrators was tried in Israel.

William F. Meinecke, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Reflecting on the Holocaust, we’re talking about a crime that is state sponsored. And instrumental in the bureaucracy of the Holocaust was an SS officer named Adolf Eichmann, who really was the coordinator, coordinating the arrest, the assembly of Jews in occupied countries, and their transportation to the places where they would be killed.

Peter Black, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
He was probably responsible for the murder of at least 1.3 million people.

Edna Friedberg, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
After the war, he escaped Europe and went to South America, lived under the radar, under a different name, but lived a normal life for over a decade until he was found by Israeli agents who brought him back to the State of Israel to stand trial.

Peter Black, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Unlike the Nuremburg trial, the Eichmann trial focused exclusively on that series of events that we now call the Holocaust. It gave, on an international stage, the opportunity for Holocaust survivors to tell their story.

Edna Friedberg, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
People standing up, often in great pain, often for the first time, and telling what happened to them, how they were tortured, how their families were murdered, how their communities were destroyed. Yet again, like Nuremberg, he is not just killed. He is given a lawyer. He is given a public trial with immense press attention, with witnesses, with the chance to mount a defense.

Mike Newton, Professor of Law and Former Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
In May of 1962, he was pronounced guilty on appeal and executed. And that did a very important thing. It established the principle that there is no statute of limitations for these crimes. When you commit genocide and war crimes and crimes against humanity, you spend the rest of your life waiting for justice to happen.

Bob Behr, Holocaust Survivor
Justice. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t always right, but at least the world has learned that those people who commit crimes of that nature can no longer count on getting away with it.

Adam M. Smith, International Lawyer and Author
The legacy of Nuremburg is not so much the judgments that were rendered, but rather the philosophy that was rendered. The philosophy that there are certain crimes for which individuals should be held responsible, and certain crimes for which the international community will stand up and say that we will not stand for that. And in my mind, whether we’re looking at the situation in Bosnia, or you're looking at the situation in Sudan or Sierra Leone or Rwanda, or any other horrific situation, that is the reference point. Nuremburg still very much exists.

Victoria Barnett, Director of Church Relations, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
If there’s going to be a chance to eradicate genocide, to reach a point where never again really does ring true, we have to make some kind of commitment within ourselves that we will do what we can to honor the victims, to remember the history, to remember that when genocide is perpetrated there are perpetrators. To face those hard truths because that’s the only way, I think, that we’re ever going to stop it.

The 2011 Days of Remembrance theme—Justice and Accountability in the Face of Genocide: What Have We Learned?—marks the 65th anniversary of the first Nuremberg trial and the 50th anniversary of the trial Adolf Eichmann. Both trials set important precedents and raised significant questions about the nature of justice in the face of such enormous crimes. The challenges of justice and accountability continue to be enduring legacies of the Holocaust.