As a Jew in Germany on a Fulbright fellowship 25 years ago, Lawrence Douglas became interested in the way Germans were dealing with the Holocaust, especially the role war crimes trials played in “confronting the past.”
Since then Douglas has taught law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College and written and edited 16 books, many on the subject of Nazi war crimes and the 13 trials held in Nuremberg after World War II to prosecute war criminals.
His latest work, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, will be published next month by Princeton University Press.
Douglas has also written two novels dealing with Jewish identity as well as The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo — a Jewish-oriented satire of the popular Stieg Larsson mystery trilogy.
He will deliver a talk on “Trials of the Holocaust: Nuremberg to Demjanjuk” on Tuesday evening, Dec. 8, at Kean University.
He discussed his work with NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 25 phone interview.
NJJN: Many Americans’ sense of the trials comes from the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, which showed vivid film of concentration camp victims and survivors.
Douglas: Judgment at Nuremberg is not about the international trial. It is about one of the 12 successor trials that the Americans conducted. Judgment at Nuremberg is an almost revisionist understanding of what happened at Nuremberg.
NJJN: What really did happen at the Nuremberg trials?
Douglas: In the first trial, conducted jointly by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France, they put 22 major Nazi war criminals on trial — people like Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering. When that trial ended, each of the four allies conducted its own set of 12 tribunals against 185 “important but lesser functionaries of the Nazi state.”
The first Nuremberg trial was not about the crimes of the Holocaust. It was a trial about aggressive war. The evidence of extermination of Jews that came before the Nuremberg tribunal was all treated as secondary to the aggressive war charge.
At the first Nuremberg trial very few Jewish witnesses were called. The British were very concerned that if you highlighted the suffering of the Jews of Europe it would place greater pressure on their government to relax their policy on allowing Jews to immigrate to Palestine.
NJJN: There have been so many examples of genocide since World War II that have gone unpunished. What, if anything, has the world learned from the Nuremberg trials?
Douglas: Deterrence is a very hard thing to measure, and Nuremberg has done very little to deter later genocides. But the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 galvanized international attention and became a transformative event. Until that point, the Holocaust had been considered one of the many bad things that happened during World War II. The Eichmann trial really transformed the Holocaust by elevating it into the forefront of the consciousness of people, not just in Israel, but in Germany and the United States.
NJJN: Why Eichmann, as opposed to all the previous war criminals who were tried and convicted and sometimes executed?
Douglas: Eichmann was an ideal defendant for dealing with the crimes of the Holocaust because he was responsible for all the logistical arrangements for deporting and sending lots of Jews to death camps. The prosecutors of the Eichmann trial saw it as an opportunity at rectifying the mistakes of the prosecutors of Nuremberg, who did not focus on the crimes against the Jewish population of Europe.
NJJN: Given the number of unprovoked attacks on other countries since World War II, why haven’t other countries been prosecuted since Nuremberg?
Douglas: Some people have made the argument that the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush was unprovoked aggression, as was the war in Vietnam. But Nuremberg’s decision to focus on the crime of aggression rather than the crime of extermination was a mistake. My feeling is it is a mistake to treat aggression as an international crime because you are inviting a real politicization of international law.
But extermination, genocide, and crimes against humanity would be very clear-cut examples of international crimes.
NJJN: Are you ever confronted by Holocaust deniers?
Douglas: I am always on their mailing lists. They are virulent anti-Semites. I don’t think they actually believe what they are saying. They distort the truth for their own hateful ends.