The Nuremberg trials: lessons for today

In a web site devoted to history’s “famous trials,” law professor Douglas Lindner writes: “No trial provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than do the Nuremberg trials from 1945 to 1949. Those who come to the trials expecting to find sadistic monsters are generally disappointed. What is shocking about Nuremberg is the ordinariness of the defendants: men who may be good fathers, kind to animals, even unassuming — yet who committed unspeakable crimes.”

Fifty-six years after the Nuremberg trials, the average American has never heard of them. But they have a definite relationship to U.S. foreign policy under Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II.

The defendants were charged with conspiracy to wage aggressive war in violation of international treaties, killing or mistreatment of prisoners of war, and other crimes against humanity. The worst crime against all humanity was the systematic mass murder of Jews, ethnic minorities, the physically and mentally disabled, trade unionists, communists, progressives and others opposed to the fascist regime. There was also wholesale use of unspeakable torture. The Nazis’ pre-emptive war against Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union was the chief among their countless violations of international law.

Nuremberg chief prosecutor Robert Jackson, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, said in his opening statement to the tribunal, “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

That statement can easily be applied to the Reagan administration, which violated congressional laws forbidding intervention in Nicaragua’s struggle to prevent the overthrow or destabilization of its government. Reagan employed Oliver North and Elliot Abrams along with anti-Castro Cubans to supply arms and ammunition to insurgents to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Thousands of Nicaraguans were killed. Millions of dollars were given to defeat the Sandinistas and their president, Daniel Ortega.

Reagan and George H.W. Bush waged pre-emptive war against Panama and Grenada. Thousands more were killed. President Clinton, using the charge of “ethnic cleansing,” destabilized and fractured Yugoslavia, killing thousands of people in the process.

But the George W. Bush administration is by far the crassest of all administrations in American history, with actions that fit the crimes outlined by the Nuremberg tribunal. This administration is guilty of waging pre-emptive war against another state which did not threaten the United States, and promoting and condoning torture. The mass bombing in Iraq, described as “shock and awe,” killed unknown tens of thousands of Iraqis, destroyed homes and infrastructure, violated international laws and launched a war drive not too different from Hitler’s with Bush’s proclamation that a list of nations — Syria, Iran, North Korea and Cuba — are next on the list. This administration has been earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars to overthrow the governments of Venezuela and Cuba and placing on the table such a plan for Iran and North Korea if they don’t “straighten up and fly right.”

The International Crimes Tribunal in The Hague should indict the entire Bush administration for crimes against humanity. Congress should take a first step to impeach Bush for malfeasance in office and responsibility for the shameful deaths of Americans and Iraqis in Iraq.

John Gilman (johngilman@aol.com), a decorated World War II veteran, is a peace and justice activist in Milwaukee.