JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — This Nov. 20 marks 60 years since the Nuremberg trials began their work of redefining human rights — by appealing to a “higher law.”
Benjamin Ferencz remembers. He had been sent to several newly liberated concentration camps to help collect evidence of the horrors inflicted by Nazi Germany.
He describes what he saw there as vividly as if he had completed his gruesome task yesterday.
“We knew that Hitler had passed all kinds of discriminatory laws and that there was a program to annihilate the Jews, but how exactly that was being done was only visible when you entered the camps and saw the grounds covered with dead bodies lined up at the crematorium waiting to be burned,” he said.
Ferencz and his colleagues moved from camp to camp, seizing documents and gathering survivor testimony.
An international military tribunal, comprised of representatives from the United States, France, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, used the information to indict 24 individuals, including Hermann Goering and Rudolph Hess. Among the charges were crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The trial would redefine human rights and crimes against humanity in ways that speak to our time.
The trial began Nov. 20, 1945 in Nuremberg's Palace of Justice, chosen because it was one of the largest buildings in the region still intact, according to Norbert Ehrenfreund, who at the time was a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
The gas chambers weren't the only killing machines on the court's docket.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal indicted and convicted 10 Nazi leaders for “encouraging and compelling abortions,” an act which the Tribunal characterized as “a crime against humanity.” As with their other crimes against humanity, the Nazis protested that “we were just following orders.”
Lieutenant General Richard Hildebrandt, the SS (Schutzstaffel) Chief of the Race and Settlement Office in Berlin, stated that “Up to now nobody had the idea to see in this interruption of pregnancy a crime against humanity.”
But abortion was another aspect of Nazi's Master Race ideology that is often overlooked today.
Ehrenfreund, who later became a superior court judge in California, said, “The defendants certainly did not look like supermen. They did not look like monsters. They were human beings and they looked so ordinary.”
Of the 22 individuals who actually were tried (one committed suicide, one was unfit), 12 were sentenced to death, three were acquitted, three received life sentences and four received 10 to 20 years. American military tribunals oversaw 12 subsequent trials. Ferencz was the chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen case, which dealt with the special action squads that killed over 1 million people.
“There was no remorse whatsoever,” Ferencz said. “They not only did not regret what they had done, they said specifically that they would do it again. … What I was hearing for the first time was the attempt of justification of mass murder on the excuse that it was anticipatory self-defense and a preemptive strike.”
Many pro-lifers insist that the legacy of Nuremberg reaches closer to home in the United States with respect to abortion and euthanasia.
Unfortunately, the violent anti-abortion website “The Nuremberg Files” has made it difficult for pro-lifers to draw comparisons between the World War II Germany's disregard for life and modern America's.
But the Ohio Right to Life website argues that abortion today shares many characteristics with the holocaust. It's carried out in a brutal way, dismembering its victims. Those who carry it out know very well what they are doing — doctors know that life starts at conception — but have numbed themselves to the procedure. Language is carefully controlled to prevent the public from rejecting abortion: Unborn children are called “fetuses” and the dismemberment of the unborn is called “termination of a pregnancy.”
But there are legal parallels with the trial, as well.
At Nuremberg, a small number were actually tried compared to the estimated 300,000 individuals who probably committed equally heinous crimes. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air, Calif., initially dismissed Nuremberg's importance.
“I was wrong,” Berenbaum said. “The reality is that in the aftermath of massive inhumanity, the world has to come up with restorative measures.”
While trials may have been inadequate, they, in some measure, did help society come to terms with what had occurred. The Nuremberg tribunals declared that aggressive war is wrong and set precedent for holding individuals accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity — including abortion.
“Prior to Nuremberg, you could hide behind the skirt of the state,” said Rolland Kidder, executive director of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y., dedicated to advancing the legacy of Nuremberg's chief American prosecutor.
The justification for the charges was based in natural law, which in essence means there are standards of justice and human rights that transcend written law
At Nuremberg, the defendants’ crimes included denying the personhood of entire groups of people, Charles Rice, professor emeritus of law at the University of Notre Dame, said. The Nazis “depersonalized the Jews. … They took away legal rights. There is an obvious parallel there to what the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade.”
Robert George, the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, said Nuremberg “is an affirmation of a moral reality to which human positive law should aspire, and which always stands potentially, at least, in judgment over the law of any particular nation.”
Under natural law, “the human being has inherent dignity, and because human dignity is inherent, we have it from the point which we come into being and retain it until the point at which we cease to be,” George said, adding that it is an “undeniable” fact of embryology that a new human being comes into existence at conception.
Monta Monaco Hernon is based in La Grange Park, lll.