A Reporter's Life

Cronkite is Witness to the Proceedings at the First World Court

I wanted to spit on them. I don't recall that it had ever occurred to me to spit on anyone before. But this was what I wanted to do now. I had never thought before of what a precise mark of contempt that action is. I wouldn't spit on the street, but now I would spit on them, to show, subconsciously, I suppose, that I thought them lower than the dirt on the street.

I watched them as they watched films of the concentration camp victims. They buried their heads in their hands, they sobbed openly. And I couldn't help wondering whether they cried out of pity for the victims or out of fear of the retribution that society sought.

Almost as shocking as those films were the tales from the witness stand, notably those of a very ordinary-looking man who calmly told of supervising the deaths of three million persons as if he were telling a neighboring farmer of having to put down a sick cow.

Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess (no relation to defendant Rudolf Hess) was for three years the boss of Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp in Poland. He unemotionally described in excruciating detail the operation of his gas chambers.

"At least two and a half million victims were executed and exterminated by gassing and burning," he recited almost in a monotone. "At least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making about three million."

They had been men, women and children, most of them Jews, but also including political, military and intellectual leaders of the occupied countries.

Hoess was asked if he felt any remorse or even had second thoughts about what he was doing. He replied: "Don't you see, we SS [the elite Nazi security force] men were not supposed to think about these things.... It was something already taken for granted that the Jews were to blame for everything. . . . We were all so trained to obey orders that the thought of disobeying an order would never have occurred to anybody."

Hoess was hanged in the Auschwitz compound next to the house where he had lived with his wife and five children.

The star witness was Hermann Goering, second only to Hitler from the beginning of the Nazis' rise to Power. On trial for his life, he displayed on the stand all the arrogance with which he had once set out to rule the world.

Goering was on the stand for nine days. For the first three, under direct examination by his attorney, he read into the trial record what in effect was a new testament of Naziism. With diabolical cunning, Goering undoubtedly intended to use the Allied sense of fairness against the democracies. He calculated that the tribunal and subsequent historians would not tamper with the full transcript of the proceedings.

So he laid out in exquisite detail the Nazi philosophy and its program. He in no way apologized for any of it. He did apologize, however, for its mistakes, which he carefully outlined so that they might be avoided by a future generation of Germans intent on finally achieving a Deutschland über Alles. Goering fell just short of stating flatly that Naziism should be restored. Most of the courtroom was not oblivious to what he was doing. There were whispered conferences among the judges and at the prosecution tables, but the chief American prosecutor who would be cross-examining him, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson, did not seem to catch on and registered no protests. Jackson, who, as much as anyone, was the father of the International Tribunal, had been brilliant in his advocacy of the procedure, and his four-hour opening statement was a masterpiece widely praised among lawyers. But he had virtually no experience in criminal law and totally lacked the bulldog tenacity of a skilled prosecutor. During three days of cross-examination Goering ran circles around him.

Although Jackson's table was piled high with the documents that conclusively established Goering's guilt, the defendant had only his astounding memory and a few notes in the lavender notebook his jailers had provided (undoubtedly with the snicker of junior high school pranksters). Thus armed, Goering parried many of Jackson's thrusts, frequently correcting dates and figures that Jackson misquoted from the documents in front of him. Jackson was totally unnerved by Goering's almost jovial impudence. To Goering's insouciance he could respond only with bluster and a posture reminiscent of the country lawyer he once had been.

Several of the judges in subsequent memoirs were critical of Jackson's performance, none more than Britain's Sir Norman Birkett. In fact, he was critical of the Nuremberg proceedings as a whole. He was acerbic, acidic in his complaints about the slowness of the trial, which he blamed partly on his fellow judges but primarily on what he considered the far-too-methodical German lawyers.

He had come to Nuremberg already famous in London courts for his sharp wit. With his red hair peeking out from under his judicial wig, he once offered a minor criminal his last words before the bench.

"As God is my judge, " said the man, "I'm innocent."

"He isn't, I am, and you aren't," replied Birkett.

There were many nights at the press camp bar in Nuremberg and later when I argued for the legitimacy of the Nuremberg trial, defending it against those who contended that it was built on the sand of ex post facto Justice, on the basis of law that did not exist when the crimes were committed. For one thing, there were international treaties that Nazi Germany clearly violated--the Kellogg-Briand Pact Of 1928, which outlawed aggressive war, and the Geneva Convention of 1897 and the Hague Convention of 1899, which defined the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war.

Although Justice Jackson put it somewhat more obliquely in many of his eloquent statements, I always believed the trial was justified by the necessity of establishing judicial precedent even before the establishment of the international law that it was meant to support. This justification was built on the basic truth that the world is unlikely to survive a third world war, which would almost certainly bring universal nuclear devastation. If we are to avoid that catastrophe, a system of world order--preferably a system of world government--is mandatory. The proud nations someday will see the light and, for the common good and their own survival, yield up their precious sovereignty, just as America's thirteen colonies did two centuries ago.

When we finally come to our senses and establish a world executive and a parliament of nations, thanks to the Nuremberg precedent we will already have in place the fundamentals for the third branch of government, the judiciary. This, to my mind, was the meaning of--and the justification for--Nuremberg.

Or perhaps its meaning came through even more clearly at the vast party stadium outside Nuremberg, the scene of Hitler's great annual rallies, one of which was so skillfully filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for her Nazi propaganda opus, Triumph of the Will. The American occupation authorities had put it off limits to the Germans, but the mayor of Nuremberg appealed for permission to use it for a peace rally marking the first anniversary of the war's end.

He was standing at the center of the vast reviewing stand where Hitler used to take the salute of his regiments of military, civilian workers and the Hitler Youth. At each end of the stand were huge marble and brass bowls from which great flames had burst during the rallies. Now children were climbing up their sides and playing in them. The mayor's first words--the first German words spoken in the stadium since the fall of Naziism--were "Will the children please come down from the sacrificial urns."

With the Fascists gone, the Nazis gone, only one of the twentieth century's major dictatorships remained: the Soviet Union. That was the next stop for Betsy and me.

Cronkite on Nuclear War

My Letter to Cronkite: Holocaust Parallel

Cronkite for President - Can we find someone, (someone over 35 years old), who we could most all agree on for our next President?

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