The Judgement at Nuremberg Movie

This summer, the Siskel Center is running the Judy Garland centennial retrospective, and this week, they ran The Judgement at Nuremberg. I know that “everybody saw it,” but it was not screened in the Soviet Union and somehow never ended up on my “must-see” list. I knew this movie existed, but the list of the movies I never saw is too long:).

So yesterday, I spent three hours in the middle of the warm and sunny July Saturday in the dark theater and was so impressed by the movie that it took me some time to start putting my impressions in words.

The movie appears to be highly timely these days, and the parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine are more than apparent.

The Counsel of the Nazi judges on trial tells his defendant: we need to preserve some dignity of our country, of our people. If we admit all these crimes against humanity happened, there will be nothing left of Germany. Our people won’t have any leaders, and our country will disappear; there will be only Americans here. I am not only defending you; I am defending our country. I didn’t find the exact quote for this statement, but here is a quote from the speech of one of the defendants, Erns Janning (Burt Lancaster):

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 16-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.

Ernst Janning

And then the following quote from his counsel Hans Rolfe:

Why did we succeed, Your Honor? What about the rest of the world? Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not hear the words of Hitler’s broadcasts all over the world? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf…published in every corner of the world? Where is the responsibility of the Soviet Union…who signed in the pact with Hitler…enabled him to make war? Are we now to find Russia guilty? Where is the responsibility of the Vatican…who signed in the concordat with Hitler…giving him his first tremendous prestige? Are we now to find the Vatican guilty? Where is the responsibility of the world leader Winston Churchill…who said in an open letter to the London Times in : ‘Were England to suffer a national disaster, I should pray to God…to send a man of the strength of mind and will of an Adolf Hitler.’ Are we now to find Winston Churchill guilty? Where is the responsibility of those American industrialists…who helped Hitler to rebuild his armaments, and profited by that rebuilding? Are we now to find the American industrialists guilty? No, Your Honor. Germany alone is not guilty. The whole world is as responsible for Hitler as Germany.

Hans Rolfe

Which is also very true and also resonates with the current situation. And then comes the worst part, which makes you think about yesterday’s Hungarian president’s statement, the quote from General Merrin addressing the prosecutor, Colonel Ted Larson: 

Look, I’m not your commanding officer. I can’t influence your decision, and I don’t want to. But I want to give this to you, and I want to give it to you straight. We need the help of the German people. And you don’t get the help of the German people…by sentencing their leaders to stiff prison sentences. The thing to do is survive, isn’t it? Survive as best we can, but survive.

And also, lots of “we didn’t know” quotes. Frau Bertholt (Marlene Deitreich):

Listen to me… there are things that happened on both sides. My husband was a military man, had been all his life. He was entitled to a soldier’s death; he asked for that. I tried to get that for him, just that and he would die with some honor. I went from official to offical. I begged for that, I begged for that, that he should be permitted the dignity of a firing squad. You know what happened. He was hanged with the others, and after that, I knew what it was to hate. I never left the house. I never left the room. I drank. I hated with every fiber of my being, I hated every American I’d ever known. But one can’t live with hate. I know that. We have to forget. We have to go on living.

And a quote from Judge Haywood:

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!

Judge Haywood


I took mom with me, and I was hoping she would understand at least something. She said that it was very powerful, and the actors were great, but that I should have “told her about the Nuremberg Trial because she didn’t look up ahead of time and could not understand what was going on.” No comment on that. Also, she recognized Marlene Deitrich, but she didn’t understand who was the character she was playing and what she was talking about. 

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