Any criminal proceeding pumped up with enough celebrity, controversy, or lurid detail guarantees it will be slapped with a “Trial of the Century” (TOC) appellation.
The 20th century averaged one TOC every five years or so. Sex, death, and deceit swirled around the trials of celebrities like Fatty Arbuckle and O.J. Simpson. President Clinton was impeached. Patty Hearst and Charles Lindbergh Jr. were thrown into the glare of the media after being kidnapped. The 1921 Chicago Black Sox scandal almost destroyed baseball.
Charles Darwin (through proxy John Scopes) was tried for espousing the theory of evolution. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed after being convicted of passing top-secret information about the hydrogen bomb to the Soviet Union. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Manhattan Project, which had been organized to create the first nuclear fission weapon, later lost his security clearance for arguing the world was not ready for the far more powerful thermonuclear fusion bomb.
In the most remarkable criminal proceedings of the 20th century, the Nuremberg Tribunals attempted to contextualize the eruption of mass psychopathology by identifying and punishing the perpetrators of WW II.
Simply put, 61 million people (over 2.5% of the world’s population at the time) died due to the criminal actions of a small group a leaders who had taken totalitarian control of their countries.
Ironically, the real “Trial of the Century” — even though it had been filmed, edited and ready for distribution — has never been shown to American audiences, until now.
Josh Waletzky and Sandra Schulberg, whose father made the original film, have produced a new 35mm print that includes the original spoken soundtrack, which was not available in the 1947 version.
Earlier this week, Culture and Events spoke to Sandra Schulberg in New York by phone about her newly restored film, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today.
The film was originally made for a worldwide audience. Why hasn’t it ever been shown in the United States until now?
Schulberg: When they couldn’t agree between Washington and Berlin on who should make the film and what script to use, Pare Lorenzt, whose job it was at the War Department (which became the Department of Defense) to oversee this film, gave the three competing scripts to Justice Robert H. Jackson (chief U.S. prosecuter at Nuremberg). I know this because in my father’s records I found Jackson’s letter saying, “The only script I that can approve is the Schulberg script because it’s the only script that really reflects the structure of the trial.”
Justice Jackson was the final arbitrar, which I think may be the only time in history that a sitting Supreme Court justice wound up working as an executive producer, if you will.
They finished in April of ’48, but then it took time to plan the German release, and then, as we have learned, the U.S. government decided it was “unsafe” for American audiences, even though they had planned to make a film for posterity, not just for the German audience.
In the ‘70s, the War Department turned over prints of the film to the National Archive, although the negative was destroyed. I had to create a whole new negative and we had to totally reconstruct the soundtrack because the original sound elements were also lost or destroyed.
That was already 30 years after the film was made. It had been sitting in the Archive ever since. Anyone could have gone in and did what I did, but no one had interest in restoring the film and the soundtrack and bringing it back to life.
After my mom died we were clearing out her apartment and we found these boxes and boxes of documents about the making of the film. We found a 16mm print that had been sitting there for all these decades which was of no use for the restoration, but it taught us another little piece of the story.
To get around the accusation that the government was outright banning or censoring the film, they made a few 16mm prints that they stocked in what was called the “Signal Corps Library.” If you knew it was there and you were a teacher, you could get a copy of it.
But we also know that Justice Jackson tried to get a copy of the film to show to a private meeting of the New York Bar Association and the government wouldn’t let him have a print. You could call him the main star of the film! It goes to show you the length to which the government went to keep the film from entering the public discourse.
Given the wide availability of handheld media devices, photographic evidence is quite common today — Rodney King and Abu Ghraib being two of the most notorious examples. What was the status of photographic evidence in when the Nuremberg Tribunals began?
Schulberg: My father and uncle had found quite a lot of film that they thought they could use in the courtroom and they started working hand-in-hand with the prosecution. I know from my father’s letters that a number of the lawyers who worked for him were very skeptical about this because it had never been done before. It was really a kind of revolutionary notion to introduce moving pictures — a lot of them — as evidence.
My father wrote home to my mother saying, “We had a hell of a time convincing the stuffy attorneys about the value of our film materials but now they’re calling us.” He was so pleased and relieved when he could give them film that shows a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS) at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp who claimed he was never there. So the prosecution overcame their initial skepticism, I’d say. In that same letter, he said that Justice Jackson had called to congratulate them.
Why is Nuremberg relevant today?
Schulberg: Back in 1948, my father named this puzzle, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, because they were so concerned that the film might seem dated. The trial was over in ’46, and they were worried that people wouldn’t think it’s relevant anymore. The film is being shown in U.S. theaters for the first time now, more than 60 years after it was made, and oddly enough, it’s very contemporary.
There was a huge gap in time between the Nuremberg Trials and the first of the International Tribunals starting with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the early 90s. That was really the first time the international community came together to try to prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes, and so on.
The notion of “Crimes Against Humanity” was one of the areas of the law that was really pioneered at Nuremberg. This was a relatively new area of law, and precedent is being established as we speak. The International Criminal Court (ICC) only began to function in 2003, and it handled only a very few cases.
The film is coming at a very opportune moment because this year the ICC is finally getting recognition. It’s finally getting the attention of jurists around the world — and of governments around the world.
So this film, I think, is going to be of great interest to Americans who maybe don’t know about Nuremberg, don’t understand its connection to the modern trials that have been launched in the last decade. It’s the basis, really, for the International Criminal Courts.
There are currently 114 states that are party to the ICC, but unfortunately, not the United States. It’s such a shame — we played such an important role at Nuremberg. We played a very important role laying the foundation for the ICC by working with many of the countries to create the Rome Treaty that established the court — and President Clinton signed that treaty.
The Bush administration tried to distance itself from the ICC, and the Senate never ratified the treaty, so we’re not a party to the ICC. We’re not subject to its jurisdiction.
What do you make of the irony that Germany — and not the United States — signed off on the ICC?
Schulberg: One of the most innovative areas of the law that was developed at Nuremberg was the notion of the “Crime of Aggression” — Count One of the Indictment — that Justice Jackson cared most deeply about and that he personally prosecuted. This whole notion of what constitutes aggression is something that the ICC and the international justice community as a whole — including very good people in the Obama administration — have been wrestling with.
It is a very tricky issue because sometimes you intervene militarily in order to prevent human rights abuse. Sometimes an act of aggression is a pre-emptive act, and sometimes it’s a true act of aggression. Because there’s a huge amount of disagreement about this, including people who feel that the United States should not have invaded Iraq. This is an area that has been actively debated.
I think what is fascinating for people today who are interested in this debate is to go and see Nuremberg, because you see how this area of the law was developed, how dramatically the case was proven. There are two areas of the law that were really advanced at Nuremberg — one is regarding the legal definition of and the evidence required to prove aggression — that was a big leap forward that was made at Nuremberg. The other was “Crimes Against Humanity.”
There had been a long history — several century’s worth of precedent about what constitutes a war crime. There have been traditionally laws and customs of war, but the notion of “Crimes Against Humanity” was really a much newer area of the law. That includes the crime of genocide, which then became codified separately.
The Crime of Aggression, the very act of starting a war, is perhaps the greatest crime of all. What’s so touching, I must say, reading about the trial, reading about Justice Jackson, the ideals of the other prosecutors — they really thought that by holding this trial, that they were going to stop all future wars. They really thought that if you held military leaders accountable — not the little people, but the leaders at the top — that you would set such an example that no one would dare follow in those footsteps.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the cure-all that they had hoped. But that doesn’t mean it’s still not worth pursuing those ideals: “The force of law” instead of “The law of force.”
These are the really important and interesting groundbreaking elements that you can see emerging from the Nuremberg Trials. It is very dramatic. Nuremberg is a great anti-war film; it is one of the great anti-war films of all time. I think that’s ultimately its most important message, “Its Lesson for Today.”
The four Nuremberg Indictments:
Count One — Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War
Count Two — Waging Aggressive War, or “Crimes Against Peace”
Count Three — War Crimes
Count Four — Crimes Against Humanity
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