In 1945 the Allies created the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg (IMT) to try the surviving leaders of the Third Reich. Afterwards, it was the United States alone that prosecuted some German industrial leaders, diplomats, SS officers, physicians, and generals in twelve subsequent Nuremberg trials; those continued into 1949. Despite their many shortcomings, these proceedings were not show trials or simple acts of revenge. Based on the rule of law, they set new standards for legal accountability.
In The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence, Kim Christian Priemel takes a fresh look at the ambitious educational goals of the Nuremberg prosecution. By turning the courtroom into a classroom, most Allied prosecutors wanted not only to punish, but also to understand and explain the circumstances that led to the brutalization of a Western society. Examining the twelve years from the Nazi takeover in 1933, scholars in the U.S. and Europe asked what had gone wrong with Germany. Why did a culturally and technologically advanced society turn into a genocidal dictatorship, leading the world into a catastrophic war? “The question of whether or not Germany belonged to the West” (p. 3) soon was at the heart of these discussions.
A wave of publications dealt with Germany’s divergence, looking to identify when exactly it had started down its alleged “Sonderweg” (special path). For many, Germany’s descent had begun with Luther, but had been exacerbated by Prussian militarism in the nineteenth century—in 1940 American journalist Dorothy Thompson blamed “Prussian influence which drove Germany eastwards rather than westwards” (p. 39).
Priemel shows that exiled scholars from Germany and other Central European countries helped shape the Sonderweg narrative. During the war, they found job opportunities in American and British universities, and later in military agencies. Most notably, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and its Research and Analysis Branch gave many emigré academics opportunities to analyze the Nazi regime. Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, William Langer, Raphael Lemkin, Hersch Lauterpacht, and Franz Neumann, among others, influenced Allied views. Many were directly involved in the IMT and the Allied military administrations of Germany and Austria.
In Nuremberg prosecutors indicted twenty-four individuals on up to four charges: war crimes, crimes against humanity, waging a war of aggression, and conspiracy to commit each of these crimes. Robert H. Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the United States, made conspiracy a central aspect of his arguments. The controversial conspiracy count also served as a way to bind the various accusations together and to cover prewar actions such as the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. [End Page 122]
The Germans had committed horrible crimes and thereby betrayed Western standards, but they could be reformed. “The very notion of a fair trial was based on the idea that Germany was not beyond reform, that Germans could learn from the Allies and improve on their historical record,” as Priemel points out (p. 3). However, this notion of superior Allied moral authority was “visibly compromised by the Soviet Union’s participation” (p. 6). And although the SS was declared a criminal organization, the German Military High Command and others were not. This opened the door for the notion that there were two kinds of Germans, the criminal and the decent.
The twelve subsequent American-run Nuremberg trials aimed to accomplish what the international tribunal had not: “to explain the war as a national project in which all sections of German society had had a share” (p. 169). The trials were intended to show that guilt and responsibility were not limited to just a small gang of leaders. The German elite—the “pillars” of society from industry to diplomacy—should also be held responsible and their responsibility should stand for that of large segments of German society. For the prosecution, family businesses such as the Krupp dynasty (steel and ammunition) seemed to be the ideal showcase of the German Sonderweg from Bismarck to Hitler.
But the subsequent Nuremberg trials faced increasing opposition in Germany against what...