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.”