This week the Music Box will present the Chicago premiere of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, a film produced by the U.S. War Department in 1945 and ’46 to document the landmark war-crimes trial of 22 top-ranking Nazis by an international military tribunal. Though the movie was released in Germany in 1948 as a way of confronting citizens with the grim reality of the Holocaust, it’s never been shown in the United States until now, which gives its 63-year-old subtitle an ironic twist. For some viewers, the movie’s chronicle of Nazi aggression will seem dully familiar, the sort of thing broadcast constantly on the History Channel. On the other hand, when Newsweek recently asked a thousand randomly chosen Americans to try their hand at the U.S. naturalization test, only 60 percent of them could identify the nations we fought in World War II. So the movie’s lesson might be more rudimentary now than it was back then.
Nuremberg may be appreciated best not as a documentary but as an artifact of the prosecution itself, structured in four parts to reflect the four indictments, though even in this respect it has something to teach us. Imperfect as they were, the Nuremberg trials were a landmark in international relations, a truly heroic effort, mere months after the bloodiest conflict the world has ever known, to establish justice rather than revenge as the norm in dealing with aggressor nations. When the Allies first began to consider the fate of Germany, Joseph Stalin had recommended the summary execution of 50,000 staff officers, an idea that appalled Winston Churchill but appealed to Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, the International Military Tribunal, jointly administered by France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, set a historic standard for global justice and human rights, codifying the concept of the war crime and validating the notion of an international criminal court.
The story behind Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today is so interesting one wishes that, instead of merely restoring the film for U.S. release, the producers had incorporated it into a longer work (just as Yael Hersonski used surviving footage from a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw ghetto for his recent documentary A Film Unfinished). The movie originated when U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, appointed chief prosecutor for the IMT by President Truman, decided to round up the Nazis’ own photographs and film footage to be introduced as evidence. The U.S. Army’s Office of Strategic Services formed a special unit—commanded by director John Ford—to locate this material, and based on tips from informants (among them the legendary Leni Riefenstahl) collected a wealth of images before they could be destroyed. The unit created two films that were shown in court: The Nazi Plan, which ran four hours, and Nazi Concentration Camps, which compiled British and American footage of the camps being liberated.
Jackson also wanted the OSS unit to record the entire trial, which lasted ten and a half months, though ultimately that chore went to the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which managed to shoot only about 25 hours of footage. After the trial was over, Pare Lorentz—the great documentary maker who’d chronicled the Depression in The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938)—commissioned a movie about the trial in his capacity as film coordinator for the U.S. War Department. The assignment went to a young member of the OSS unit, Stuart Schulberg (whose father, B.P. Schulberg, had been a key executive at Paramount Pictures, and whose older brother, Budd, would script On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd). Schulberg was hamstrung by the dearth of available footage, though he was able to draw on complete audio recordings of the trial, which he awkwardly synced up with what imagery there was, and on the library of archival material that had been collected.
The first indictment, for conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, was the most complex but also the most critical: it allowed prosecutors to include Nazi acts of persecution against Jews and other minorities before the actual outbreak of war and, even more important, obviated the defendants’ claim that they were just following orders (the so-called “Nuremberg defense”). As a legal concept, conspiracy was limited to the British and American traditions of jurisprudence, so Jackson took responsibility for making the case in court. Schulberg condenses his argument into a concise history of fascism in Germany: the publication of Mein Kampf, the rise of the Nazi Party, the burning of the Reichstag, the campaign for national rearmament, the introduction of compulsory military service, the conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s public pronouncements about his good intentions are contrasted again and again with his steady buildup of a war machine that could dominate the world.
The remaining indictments were divided among the other participating nations. The British prosecutor, Sir Hartley Shawcross, presented the case that the defendants had waged wars of aggression in violation of international treaties (which leads Schulberg quite naturally to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of World War II). The French prosecutor, Francois de Menthon, enumerated the Nazis’ epic war crimes, including their killing of civilian hostages, looting of art treasures, exploitation of slave labor, and conducting of medical experiments on prisoners. And the Soviet prosecutor, Roman Andreyevich Rudenko, exposed Germany’s crimes against humanity, which encompassed not only the Holocaust but the mass murder of Slavs, Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war—all told, as many as 17 million people.
Considering the enormity of the crimes, the most surprising aspect of the trial may be that only 12 defendants went to the gallows; seven more served prison terms ranging from ten years to life, and three were acquitted. Thousands more Nazis were tried later, including doctors who’d supervised sinister experiments, industrialists who’d profited from slave labor, and judges who’d enforced corrupt laws (the subject of Stanley Kramer’s 1961 drama Judgment at Nuremberg). But no matter how many Germans stood in the dock, Nuremberg became a lightning rod, a symbol of how international law can only approximate justice. After all, no American was ever prosecuted for the U.S. firebombing of civilians in Germany (not to mention the atomic bombing of Japan), and the infamous Katyn Forest massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers in 1940 had to be dropped from the IMT case because the real perpetrators were the Soviet secret police.
In the end, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today may itself have become a casualty of international politics. For reasons that have never been made clear, the War Department chose not to distribute the movie in the U.S., and when Lorentz offered to buy the film and release it himself, he was turned down (he finally quit in frustration). John Norris, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote about the controversy in 1949 and speculated that the government was afraid images of Nazi atrocities would turn public opinion against the Marshall Plan’s goal of rehabilitating Germany. If that’s true, then the quashing of a documentary film seems like a small price to pay for the peace that’s prevailed in Western Europe ever since. Like the Nuremberg trials, the Marshall Plan became an international symbol of America at its best, a fragile boat of civility making its way up a river of vengeance.