Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): End Game of a Trump Presidency

To look at this fifty-four year old film by Stanley Kramer is to get an idea of what the American empire looked like at its height. In 1948, the United States Army had just helped win one of the only three morally justifiable wars in its history, the other two being the United States Civil War and the American Revolution. We now occupied part of a defeated nation, not a poor third-world country, but a great western power that had committed some of the worst atrocities in human history, and had forfeited the right to govern itself.

Judgment at Nuremberg opens with an American limousine roaring through the streets of the devastated old city, almost killing a man with a pushcart, then woman on a bicycle, as it brushes them both aside. The passenger of the car, however, is anything but an arrogant conqueror. Judge Dan Haywood, a humane, moderate Republican played by Spencer Tracy, has come to Nuremberg from small-town Maine to preside over a trial. Friedrich Hofstetter, Werner Lampe, Emil Hahn, and Dr. Ernst Janning are not so much war criminals as they are “judicial criminals.” Haywood is especially troubled by Janning, a distinguished jurist and legal scholar who committed crimes against humanity in the service of the Nazi regime. How could the German people, especially men like Dr. Ernst Janning, have abased themselves before a tyrant like Adolf Hitler?

I have an ominous premonition I may be asking the same question in 20 years, only about the United States, not Germany.

The United States, which is in the late stages of its imperial decline, no longer produces men like Dan Haywood, “the rock solid Republican” who, nevertheless, “thought Franklin Roosevelt was a great man.” It does, however, produce a lot men like Emil Hahn, the anti-Semitic and anti-communist bigot played by Werner Klemperer, or Werner Lampe, the cowardly little Nazi Party functionary played by Torben Meyer. Many, if not most, Americans now resemble Mrs. and Herr Halbestad, the butler and housekeeper at the house where Haywood takes up residence, little people who “don’t like to talk about politics,” didn’t see anything when Hitler was in power, and who are now content to serve the American occupiers. Sadly, there are also many Americans like Ernst Janning at places like Harvard and Yale, brilliant legal minds who wrote briefs justifying torture and indefinite detention during the Bush administration, and who refused to prosecute the too big to fail banks under Barack Obama.

In Donald Trump, I fear, we may have found our Hitler. I know how Germans like Thomas Mann must have felt when the Nazis used Goethe and Beethoven, Mozart, and Luther to justify the mass extermination of “inferior races” in the name of Aryan supremacy. The front runner for the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, Grant, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, is now a man who calls for the ethnic cleansing of 11 million Mexicans from the United States, and who stands by and says nothing when a supporter calls for the extermination of American Muslims. In and of himself, Donald Trump is nothing. Anybody paying attention has long known he was a racist clown, at least since he called for the execution of 5 innocent black teenagers during the Central Park jogger hysteria back in 1989. What’s troubling is the way Americans now seem ready to anoint him as their leader.

I love the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, the French Resistance fighter, and new wave auteur. He shows us what kind of person fights tyranny against impossible odds. There’s the cranky old man, powerless to expel the German occupier, but determined never to show him the slightest gesture of civility. There’s the elegant, chivalrous criminal ready to commit suicide for a woman who lied to the police to save his life. Finally there are the bourgeois intellectuals, ready to die under slow, brutal torture in complete anonymity to defend civilization from barbarism.

How will I act if Donald Trump goes through with his plan to ethnically cleanse 11 million Mexicans from the United States? Will I hide migrant workers in my basement? Will I lie to the police? Will I lay down in front of the railroad tracks headed to the detention camps? I’m fairly confident that I will fight back against any “final solution to the Mexican problem” drawn up by  a future President Trump. It’s usually the weirdos and the misfits, the losers, and the dirty hippies who join the resistance in the early days. What keeps me from being a productive member of American society will also keeping me from “getting along by going along” under a fascist dictatorship. I won’t collaborate because I literally won’t know how to collaborate.

In Judgment at Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer demonstrates that it’s the upstanding citizens, the respectable bourgeoisie, and above all, believers in “the law” who enable a man like Hitler, or a President Trump. Judge Haywood is determined to bend over backward to give Dr. Ernst Janning a fair trial. By doing so, he allows Hans Rolfe, Janning’s brilliant, but narrow-minded defense attorney played by a fiery Maximilian Schell, to put Germany, and the law itself, on trial. Rolfe’s strategy, to prove that Janning ordered the execution of an innocent Jewish man accused of sexual intercourse with a non-Jewish teenager only because he followed the letter of German law, becomes the rope that hangs his four clients. There is, Haywood insists, a higher law than “the law.” There’s justice.

“Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the courtroom for many months,” he says after Rolfe insists that Janning will eventually get parole. “You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic. So what you suggest may very well happen. It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right. And nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right.”

By the end of Judgment at Nuremberg, we realize that, even more than Ernst Janning, it’s been Dan Haywood on trial. It’s 1948, not 1946. Most of the major German war criminals have already been executed. The American government is more interested in fighting the Cold War than in punishing Nazi crimes against humanity. When Haywood sentences the four men to life in prison, he does so, not only against right-wing pressure, a conservative judge who mocks his support of Franklin Roosevelt, but against the “necessity” to win Germany as an ally after the Russian move into Czechoslovakia. To give into the “logical” necessity of the Cold War, to put the good of the state against justice, he realizes, will only mean becoming a Dr. Ernst Janning. To “weigh” the interests of the United States against one mentally handicapped man, or one innocent Jewish man executed under a set of Nuremberg Laws, is the moral equivalent of planning the entire Holocaust.

“Judge Haywood the reason I asked you to come,” Janning says in one final attempt to justify his actions, “those people, those millions of people, I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.”

“Herr Janning,” Haywood responds. “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

17 thoughts on “Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): End Game of a Trump Presidency”

    1. In a sense, I think, we already have. Americans have revealed their character as a people by allowing him to become the front runner for the Republican nomination. It’s already mainstream to call for the ethnic cleansing of 11 million migrant workers because you can label some people as “legal” and other people as “illegal.” Out of the closet white supremacists like Ann Coulter call for banning immigration from all non-European countries, putting the concept of “race” back into the law.

      (And a big point of Stanley Kramer’s film is that everything Hitler did was “legal.”)

      We are in Robert O. Paxton’s early stages of fascism.

      Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.


      1. Oh, dear, I sure hope you are mistaken about being in the early stages of fascism…it does seem like America is bursting at its seams for change. Maybe the country is imploding from all the isolationist ideology that comes from being a “world power”?

        1. I think we’ve been in the early stages of fascism since 9/11.

          1.) Bush approved torture and indefinite detention.

          2.) Obama declared the banks to be above the law, nullifying the power of the democratic state in favor of the corporations.

          But fascism has 5 stages. Hitler and Mussolini went through all 5. Franco and Salazar failed to radicalize Spain and Portugal, and their regimes attenuated into simple authoritarianism.

          The election of Trump would be a further step towards radicalism. We shall see.

  1. Although I do not agree with everything Mr. Trump says, to compare him with a monster like Adolf Hitler is at best insulting an at worst revealing of an ignorant and bigitive nature. Respectfully I must say that as a student of history (specifically The Holocaust) for anyone to be compared to such a man as Hitler (barring ilk like Himmler, Stalin, Nero, etc.) just because he or she does not share your political leaning is ridiculous and inflammatory.

    1. I’m comparing Trump to the Hitler of 1933, not the Hitler of 1945.

      The idea that “it can’t happen here” is a dangerous one. Trump has already promised to ethnically cleanse 11 million Mexicans. He stood by and said nothing when a man called for the extermination of American Muslims.

      What exactly will it take before Americans finally realize the road we’re going down? Nobody in Germany thought it would come to the Holocaust either. That’s the exact point of the film.

      “Those people, those millions of people, I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.”

      1. I am by no means saying that the United States is immune to manipulation by passionate speakers and seemingly messianic saviors…President Obama ’08 comes to mind. Your use of ethnic cleansing brings to mind Bosnia or Rwanda in the 1990s not the deportation of convicted criminals who are in this country illegally. I pay attention to politics, comparing them to historical trends and thus far Mr. Trump has not said anything about killing illegal immigrants, Muslims, or anyone else. Is Mr. Trump our best hope for the future of America, probably not, but to put him in the same category as Hitler is as I said before, insulting and inflammatory. Any leader we elect should be put under the severest scrutiny. The most recent Clinton Email scandal comes to mind. Our leaders should be transparent with us, especially about their words and actions taken while in office. Now that she is running for President of the United States, I think we all would like to see everything on her private serve that pertains to government business.

        1. Once you label a human being “illegal” you’ve already taken the first step on the road to fascism.

          And Trump, on his own website, uses the term “aliens.”

          In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that there were a shocking 3 million arrests attached to the incarcerated alien population, including tens of thousands of violent beatings, rapes and murders.


          What’s more, he tries to draw a correlation between an ethnicity and certain kinds of crime. That’s right out of Der Stürmer.


          Obama and Hillary are generic right-wing suck up Wall Street whores. Donald Trump is a Nazi.

          Even Forbes, hardly a “liberal” magazine acknowledges, he wants to deport 11 million people.

          In a teleconference with Alabama Republicans last week, the real estate billionaire claimed it would take him 18 months to two years to get the estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. to leave the country.


          Openly calling for the mass deportation of 11 million people? At least Hitler waited a few years into his Chancellorship before calling for that level of ethnic cleansing.

            1. It would be one of the largest acts of ethnic cleansing in history.

              But as long as it’s “legal” it’s OK, right?

              I think you need to see this film.

  2. I have to see this film, I’ve been wanting to see this film but never got around to it.
    About Trump deporting and equating that behavior to Hitler of 1933, it’s a bit of a stretch and it’s not wise to equate anyone’s behavior to Hitler’s until they’ve proven so. It screams sensationalism, though I totally what you are trying to say.
    Hitler was able to get away with what he did was because the the average ‘good German’ looked the other way and didn’t stand up for what’s wrong, even though they knew something wasn’t kosher (pun intended), especially after the Kristallnacht. And like Elie Wiesel said, it was a whole nation of indifferent people that allowed the greatest evil to happen.
    And that is why you hear Germans from that era keep saying ‘I never thought it would come to this’ and they aren’t being disingenuous or untruthful, they were being indifferent. They buried their head in the sand as long as their lives were not severely impacted, and when the Americans came in they submitted themselves willingly too.
    About Trump deporting 11 million Mexicans, he’s a damn fool. He’s got NO IDEA what that entails. Even undocumented people have rights to due process and procedure and not even the president can suspend someone’s constitutional rights unless we descend into martial law overnight. It would cost more to deport all those people than to try to integrate them.
    And if he or anyone else tries this, there will be so many legal challenges from civil rights groups that he’ll never hear the end of it.
    Trump is a clown. He’s tapped into the fear of the American heartland, a bunch of white midwesterners who are weary of having a black president for 8 years and cannot bear losing any more of their heritage to brown and black people and Trump is taking advantage of that.
    I am slightly more optimistic than you, I still believe that when it counts, when it really counts, Americans will vote the right way. That’s why Mitt Romney wasn’t elected.

    1. Mitt Romney wasn’t elected, only because the ruling-class were just as comfortable with Obama. Obama was chosen to sell the bank bailout in 2008, which he did so well I’m sure he’s going to get nice, big, fat speaker’s fees after he leaves the White House. Wall Street wanted Romney in 2012 but he was too incompetent a candidate to win. So the bankers said “tell hell with it. Obama’s going to do what we want anyway.”

      It’s almost as if the ruling-class buys a new car every four years. Obama was the BMW they bought in 2008. Romney was the new Range Rover they wanted to buy in 2012. But since the deal fell through, they said “well. We can just drive the BMW until 2016.”

      It’s not so much Trump as an individual. It’s the kind of society that would elevate a Donald Trump, that wouldn’t drive him out of public life after he called for the execution of 5 innocent teenagers.

      (Every one of those kids was innocent.)

      But I think it’s even more than racism.

      What Judgement at Nuremberg shows is how a “civilized” people like the Germans, or like Americans, can talk themselves into atrocities, not in spite of their civilized nature, but because of it.

      Maximillian Schell’s lawyer is a great character. He’s the embodiment of a man who’s perfectly logical, and yet perfectly insane. The more rational he becomes, the more he justifies atrocities.

      It’s by no means limited to conservatives either. Have you ever read a comments section on The Daily Kos about Chelsea Manning or about the bank bailout? It goes on and on about what’s “legal” and nobody ever thinks to stop and ask if it’s just.

      Derrick Jensen said it very well.

      “From insane premises to monstrous conclusions, Hitler was relentlessly logical.”


      Watch what happens if Trump wins.

      Trump’s fascist supporters are going to argue ad naseam that they’re not against “immigrants,” but only “illegal immigrants,” as if the state could declare a human being legal or illegal. Mush brained liberals will be helpless against it because all they’ll do is argue from logic, and from legality.

      In 2008, the banks got away with robbing us blind. And it was all legal. How many people stop to point out that it was only “legal” because the banks controlled the government and make the law?

      1. It was also during the Nuremburg Trials, the excuse/reason ‘I was only following orders’ cease to be a legitimate excuse if the orders you are being asked to follow is immoral or unethical.
        About Germans in the 1930s, Carl Jung said (paraphrase – I can’t locate exact quote) that the collective German people had this great need and desire to follow a great leader to get them out of the humiliation they were in. They needed someone to tell them they were the best greatest people that ever lived and Hitler fit the bill.

        1. “You’re the greatest people ever” is exactly what Trump is telling Americans.

          All the Republicans are, in fact. And the press is going along with them. Imagine an American politician with the guts Jeremy Corbyn has, someone who could get up on stage and say “American exceptionalism is bullshit.” The press would destroy him.

          1. There’s a difference between cultural/national pride and feeling that you are somehow more exceptional than say a Canadian. I am proud to be an American but I don’t believe everything America does or stands for is all good or ‘exceptional’ but I have no problem saying taking everything into consideration about America, the good bad and ugly, I am a proud American. I am not delusional about America like some of those GOP are.

            1. What Trump is arguing (and what the Nazis argued) was the the power of the state could determine nationality, and even humanity.

              So assimilated German Jews (some who had even been converted to Christianity) were suddenly declared “not German” because someone dug up some pseudo-scientific claptrap about race.

              Trump thinks that migrant Mexicans, many of whom are descended from Native Americans and all of whom have lived in the Southwest for hundreds of years, can be declared “illegal” by the state, with the stroke of a pen.

              That’s not even nationalism. That’s the radical, fascist nationalism that’s declared Obama “un-American,” Muslims unfit to be President, and, in the past, that blacks were 3/5s people.

              It’s the exact mentality the Nazis had. And most stupid conservatives (and liberals) will buy into it because it will be phrased in terms of “the law.” Fuck the law.

              It’s not totally new in US history of course. The Klan in the 1920s was a mainstream, anti-immigrant organization very similar to Trump’s followers.

              THIS is how they were beaten back.


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