Revisiting the Nuremberg Trial 75 Years Later: A Roundtable Discussion

Dr. Joseph A. Ross, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (@JosephARoss)

Image 1: Around 30 people in a courtroom of one of the Nuremberg Trials. Image 2: Herman Goering on the stand at the Nuremberg Trials, flanked by 2 guards in military uniforms.

News service caption on reverse of photograph reads SC 219748 / Justice Robert H Jackson, standing at right, delivers the prosecutions opening statement at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany. 11/22/45 Archive ID: olvwork373967

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

The Nuremberg Trial is still relevant today, 75 years after its creation following World War II. It represents a revolutionary moment in the development of international law, transitional justice, and human rights, and it laid the foundation for the current International Criminal Court (ICC).

Nuremberg also saw the Western powers cooperating (and at times competing) with the Soviet Union, which forces us to consider if Nuremberg really was a triumph of liberal idealism, as it is often characterized. This panel will reveal some of the more nuanced elements of the world’s first international war crimes trial.

Scholars continue to find new sources to research and write about the Nuremberg Trial, and all of the panelists bring something new to Nuremberg. Fran Hirsch, for instance, has conducted extensive research in five Russian archives including the Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation—which contains highly classified documents about the Soviet role in the trials. These materials (when read against British, American, and French sources) have allowed her to provide a new perspective on the origins of the International Military Tribunal and on the entire course of the trials. Hirsch’s research challenges established views of Nuremberg and asks us to grapple with the ways in which an authoritarian state that was itself guilty of myriad abuses of human rights—Stalin's Soviet Union—positively influenced the development of international law.

Joseph Ross, on the other hand, focuses on the personal experiences of the two American judges, Francis Biddle and John Parker, who have never been the focal point of any study on Nuremberg. His research demonstrates that while the Nuremberg Trial did influence these participants’ views on human rights and America’s place in the world, these individuals were not consistent in advocating for human rights issues when they returned home.

News service caption on reverse of photograph reads SG 229166 / Herman Goering poses on the stand at the Nurenberg, Germany trials. It is believed  that he will take the stand in his own defense next week. 3/8/46 Archive ID: olvwork373956

Finally, with the establishment of other international war crimes trials since the end of the Cold War, scholars have also begun to compare how the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the ICC have built off of Nuremberg’s foundation. Scholars interested in genocide and transitional justice have begun to reevaluate Nuremberg’s significance as a result.

A number of scholars are doing exciting research on the Nuremberg trials—including the Subsequent Nuremberg Military Tribunals, or NMT—and are analyzing this topic on multiple levels (individually, institutionally, internationally, legally, morally, etc.) As scholars become further removed from the events at Nuremberg, they will be able to analyze this seminal event outside of a traditional Cold War context, or even a post-Cold War context, thus adding greater nuance to our understanding.

On the Soviet side, scholars are beginning to explore Russian participants at Nuremberg, and it would be useful to see some of the Soviet memoirs of the IMT translated into English and made available for American audiences. A new comprehensive history on the postwar idea of human rights would bring terrific work from Soviet scholars into dialogue with historical works from scholars of the United States and Europe.

Posted: January 9, 2020
Tagged: Conference, Previews, Crime and Violence