The Value of a Single Human Being: Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
“Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it—the quality of temptation.” - Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
We all try to come up with explanations for pain and trauma, especially when it involves other people. Some might pull out the phrase, “everything happens for a reason” but why would there be a “reasonable” explanation for suffering? When it comes to the Holocaust, everyone from the psychologist to the philosopher has posited how the event came to occur but nobody can answer why. There is a senselessness to the horror that is just as shocking as the event itself, which explains why so many Nazis who were subsequently tried seemed remorseless. Even those who recognized the totality of the regime’s actions could distract themselves with the day to day issues of life, thereby absolving themselves of moral consequences. It is much easier to blame “the system” than it is to be actively aware of how your individual role in it hurts other people. Ultimately, Judgement at Nuremberg asks whether it is just to condemn systems of oppression or the people who take part in those systems.
Released in 1961, Judgement at Nuremberg was a critical hit and went on to win two Oscars and two Golden Globes. Featuring brilliant performances from Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich and plenty more, the movie chronicles a fictionalized version of the Judges’ Trial of 1947. The main plot centers around four judges who are accused of having perverted justice under the Third Reich, with Burt Lancaster playing judge Ernst Janning who is defended by German attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). Tracy plays Dan Haywood, the quintessential simple but virtuous small-town American who presides as Chief Trial Judge over the entire hearing. The viewer mainly follows Tracy as he is introduced to the bombed out shell of a city that is Nuremberg and interacts with a slew of characters that are involved with the hearing. From the meek German maids that inhabit the house he stays in to the brusque American prosecutor, everyone he meets makes him question what really happened and what justice really is.
What’s so brilliant about the screenplay is that it makes the viewer waver back and forth on whether they believe the judges should be convicted. Hans Rolfe constructs a convincing case for the innocence of the judges, with his most prescient point being that Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich were largely lauded and accepted by other western countries before they started to invade Eastern Europe. He pulls out a Winston Churchill quote from 1938 to illustrate his point, “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among nations”. Although this line of thinking is jarring for some, it is not too surprising to imagine how this came to be. American ideas about eugenics, race, and even the Jewish people to an extent overlapped with Nazi ideology. Now why was this the case? Though many attempted to devise an explanation for the rise of fascism, the answer is simple in a way if you look to the critical theorists. In Dialectic of Enlightenment authors Horkheimer and Adorno argue that fascism was actually a product of the extension and decline of the liberalism that the Enlightenment fostered. It is not hard to see why they came to this conclusion, as slavery, genocide, and colonization were all products of the same tradition that touted its version of reason as the highest value. All of this is not to say that the judges involved in the Nuremberg trials should have been declared innocent, but rather it contextualizes Rolfe’s argument. So when, say, the prosecution accuses the judges of sterilizing the queer and mentally ill, Rolfe is able to pull out a Virginian law which largely states the same thing.
Round and round the prosecution and defense go, each session more heated than the last. Although much of the movie takes place in a courtroom, the camera work plays off the emotions in each scene, slowly circling those being questioned in a tense moment and rapidly zooming in on important characters in a charged oner. At one point, the case of Irene Hoffman (played by Judy Garland) is opened back up and Hoffman explains how Nazi officials accused her older Jewish friend of sleeping with her. When the prosecution asks what happened when he tried to defend himself in court, she chillingly replies, “they laughed”.
What is one to make of this? How could anyone begin to understand something that unflinchingly evil? Well, a good place to start would be the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In it, she chronicles the trial of former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, which takes place in Israel. Though she makes it clear that this trial has its particularities (namely the fact that it’s largely a show trial to prove to the world that Israel can hold its own on the world stage) there are plenty of similarities with what’s occurring in Judgement at Nuremberg. By the end of the movie, all of the judges are given some sort of character flaw that accounts for their actions, but the more honest explanation is shown in a scene where the judges are talking to each other in jail. After seeing video footage of the concentration camps, one remarks that there is simply no way for that to have been the case. It does not make sense to him that he participated in a system that killed millions, but another prisoner who worked in the camps turns around and coldly spells out how the camps were designed to kill as many as possible. This unrepentant attitude is what is shared with the Eichmann trial and in his case too he argued that he was just following orders. Showing that evil is truly banal, Eichmann described working his way up the Nazi ranks the same way a manager at an office would describe his career progression. Arendt noted that more than seeming dreadfully awful, he seemed clownish in the remorselessness he shows. Much like the laughter noted by Irene Hoffman, there is an absurdity about it all that cannot be explained away by logic.
After heavy contemplation, Judge Haywood decides to declare all the judges guilty, “If Yanning and the other defendants along with the head members of the third reich were all evil monsters, then this event would have no moral significance… let it be known that this is our verdict, justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.” A verdict which also acknowledges the fact that these were regular people who participated in what they saw as a regular system. When Judge Haywood is later confronted by Hans Rolfe about the verdict, Rolfe declares that logically within five years all the judges will be released. In response Haywood says, “But to be logical is not to be right and nothing on God’s earth would make it right”. This distinction between justice and logic is perhaps one of the strongest points of the movie and one that is particularly needed in our time. In all this talk of ethics, ambiguity, justice, and responsibility, what are we to glean then? Hopefully, both a renewed sense of skepticism for every large system that we participate in and the knowledge that every single one of us has value that’s worth fighting for.