This morning I caught the last 45 minutes or so of the courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg. At the Teach With Movies website it gives the following description of the film:
This movie is a fictionalized account of the war crimes trial of judges and prosecutors who served the Nazis.
“Judgment at Nuremberg” depicts a watershed event: the first trials, based on principles of justice and international law, of the leaders of a country that waged aggressive war and committed crimes against humanity. The film is a gripping, searching and provocative look at the moral issues surrounding both the actions of the accused and the process of bringing them to justice. The film also explores the issue of whether ordinary Germans bore responsibility for the Holocaust.
I have seen this movie many times before, however, while watching the movie this morning, I was struck with how relevant the film’s themes are today as we contend with our “War on Terror” and are living with the abomination of such things as America’s Patriot Act, detainees at Guantanamo Bay, horrors at Abu Ghraib Prison and Canada’s compliance with “no-fly” lists.
Burt Lancaster plays the character, Ernst Janning, a German judge who is on trial for condemning innocent people during the Nazi regime. Janning is pretty stoic throughout the proceedings but as he watches the courtroom events unfold, he is compelled to give an explanation for his actions. In one of the most stirring moments of the film, Janning rises in court to give his statement:
“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’
It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later.
The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies.
Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtroom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life.
Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen-year-old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.”
Here is Lancaster’s brilliant performance:
“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part.
Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts – if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs – these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes.
But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men – even able and extraordinary men – can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. No one who has sat through this trial can ever forget. The sterilization of men because of their political beliefs… The murder of children… How easily that can happen!
There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the “protection” of the country. Of “survival”. The answer to that is: survival as what? A country isn’t a rock. And it isn’t an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world – let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth… and the value of a single human being!”
The verdict is indeed chilling and Tracy delivers it with the aplomb and skill of a seasoned actor:
In a post-911 world, we too live in a “Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves.” We too have leaders who would tell us, “There are devils among us. Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.”
In our fear to be thought of as less patriotic, in our fear of once again being targeted by those who hate us, many sit in silence and say, “What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later.”
But this way of thinking only perpetuates the very evil from which we seek to protect ourselves. In our paralytic fear, we’ve allowed the very principles upon which our democracy was founded to become corrupted. I think these last few word’s of Judge Haywood’s verdict should be not only etched in our hearts and minds but retained to galvanize us to rededicate ourselves to the principles we have held so dear:
“A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment that the grasp of the enemy is at its throat, when is seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way, only the answer to that is: survival as what? A country isn’t a rock. And it isn’t an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult!”