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OP-ED: The Legacy of World War II
The stories were part of the world I grew up in; stories of D-day, of every counter-espionage agent for a year saying the first attack will be a feint, of the phantom 1st Army with decoy tanks, fake radio chatter and empty tents looking like an army poised for an imminent invasion, of Omaha Beach, of Utah Beach. The death, the military blunders, the maimed, the successes, the “discovery” of the concentration camps, the Battle of the Bulge, these stories were tangible and a part of my childhood. Many of the stories were told after I was in bed, at breakfast they were alluded to quietly by my parents, and we children were told never to ask the adults about them.
So what is the legacy of WWII? For the people around me in my youth it was not D-day or even VE day or VJ day. Those were just markers of relief, of joy, that the war would come to an end. The war was not fought just to win the war. No, the adults of my youth knew there was a bigger issue – how do we keep this from ever happening again? In their experience, the world could not live through another world war, and it could not afford another war at all. The legacy of World War II was the question of how we assure that the next crazy, the next despot, the next aggressor nation does not start another war.
The Allies discussed this. Stalin believed that we should take the top 50,000 living Nazi leaders and execute them. That would send a clear message to not only the heads of state, but to the people who did the work to implement their aggression. Churchill, who incidentally had not personally been touched by the 30 million deaths on the Eastern Front, thought that Stalin was being excessive. Churchill proposed that executing the top 5,000 Nazi leaders would be enough death to make those who might support an aggressive nation's acts of war think twice. Truman thought we needed the rule of law, that we needed to establish that these acts of war were crimes and that people could expect to be prosecuted for them. Thus the Nuremberg Tribunals were formed. The Tokyo Tribunals followed, but it was Nuremberg that set the standard and established the law.
Robert H. Jackson, a US Supreme Court Justice who took a leave from the court to become a main architect of the Nuremberg Tribunals, said on August 12, 1945 “We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for our position is that no grievances or policies will justify a resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy.” This, not D-day, is what the people of my youth talked about. This was the legacy the war, this was the high ideal that made the whole war effort worth while.
I was recently talking with some US Airmen and found that they did not know what the Nuremberg Tribunals were, even when I prompted them with leads like WWII and trials. Is it possible that after all that blood and gore, the lasting legacy, the summation of what WWII was fought for has been lost? Lost even to our people in uniform.
In preparation for the tribunals the Allied powers passed the Nuremberg Charter. This set out the process of the trials and the crimes that would be prosecuted. There would be no revenge summary executions. The process established was for fair and open trials in which each defendant was presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, with right to present evidence of defense. The Nuremberg Charter went on to establish the crimes that would be prosecuted, thus we have words familiar to us today, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace.
It was the intent of the Nuremberg Tribunals to make starting a war illegal and prosecutable, even planning a war of aggression was a crime. The new laws established by Nuremberg were summed up in the seven Nuremberg Principles, among them that the sovereign or the head of a sovereign state is not above the law, and could be tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace. Up until then they were generally considered above the law, or more accurately were considered to be the law, thus could not be prosecuted. Principle IV says if you participate in a war crime, you can not be absolved of guilt by claiming you had just followed orders; if you were part of the war crime you can be prosecuted. These two principles alone radically changed the prospect for the officials and functionaries of an aggressor state and hopefully would would keep rogue leaders from starting wars and their subordinates from going along with them.
At the opening of the Nuremberg Tribunals on November 10, 1945, Robert H. Jackson, US Chief Prosecutor at the Tribunals, on leave from the US Supreme Court, said ”The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”
Returning to June 6th and what it means, the veterans and people I grew up among in the shadow of World War II did not talk about winning another war, they believed the world could not even survive another war – they talked about Nuremberg, what it meant and the hope that Nuremberg brought. As we remember that day, D-day, let us not lose sight of what all those lives were lost for, of what the people who lived through that war did to keep the scourge of war from ever consuming our world again.
Make June 6th your day to study the Nuremberg Tribunals. Look up the Nuremberg Charter (also called the London Charter), the Nuremberg Tribunals and perhaps most importantly, the Nuremberg Principles. It would be wrong, no it would worse than just wrong, for us to let the loss of 72 million lives, the pain, and the destruction wrought by World War II to be for naught by our forgetting about Nuremberg.
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Elliot Adams is a Veterans For Peace (VFP) member from New York State and past president of VFP’s National Board.