What Nazis Can Teach Us About the Saddam Trial

Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) — The defendant rules the courtroom. He charms his opponents and even regains popularity in his defeated land.

The trial has been postponed repeatedly. The judges quarrel. Legal scholars disapprove. The mess suggests that this war crimes trial shouldn't even take place.

The story is familiar — Saddam Hussein in his courtroom, Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague. But it also describes a third trial: that of Hermann Goering and other Nazi leaders in Nuremberg after World War II.

Next Monday, Jan. 30, the same day Saddam's trial resumes, PBS will air a new documentary about Nuremberg. A perceptive print account of the proceedings exists in the essays of the late author Rebecca West. Whatever medium you choose, Nuremberg is worth revisiting because the story of the trial in the Bavarian courtroom reminds us of two things.

The first is that trying a tyrant is hard to do. The second is that doing so is worthwhile.

The Nuremberg trial got off to a rough start. Hitler was dead, but Goering took his place. Though already slimmer after time in captivity and weaned off his old diet of champagne and painkillers, Goering remained large.

The prosecutors were the eminences of the victorious side — one, Robert Jackson, was a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Still, Goering dominated the room through sheer force. His presence was, West noted, flirtatious, even sexual: He sat among his fellow defendants, gray and hollow Nazis, like "a madam in a brothel."


The Air Marshal was unrepentant. "Given the chance," West wrote, "he would have walked out of the Palace of Justice and taken over Germany again." Within a few days, both his fellow Nazis in the dock and even the prosecutors seemed to be taking cues from him.

What disturbed everyone was the legitimate element in Goering's arguments. Goering said it was wrong for the Allies to elevate themselves. In a way he was right. The Soviets themselves had murdered and deported, yet they were on the bench, not in the dock.

Goering argued that it was air warfare, not Nazism, that changed the nature of combat. With carpet bombing by aircraft, civilians could no longer be excluded as targets. Coming from a famous fighter pilot — Goering — the argument was hard to counter.

Goering got to his audience, just as Saddam gets to his: by playing to their great weakness, their fairness reflex.

By What Right?

Seeing the "gray green lakes" and little hills of Germany through the window of her propeller plane, West wondered whether the Allies really had the right to conduct the trials. She was not alone. The journalists covering the trial found it was the occupiers with their autos who were the arrogant ones.

"The situation," West wrote, "would have been tolerable if these conquerors had taken the slightest interest in their conquest" — but they did not.

Most unbearable of all at Nuremberg was the imperfection of the legal process itself. Like the Shiites and Sunnis today, the Soviet and American teams quarreled so intensely that it seemed the trial could not go forward.

Officious security guards hung about the courtroom, intruding on small issues. They even poked guests in the court who crossed their legs — doing so was against the rules. Yet they missed the most obvious of breaches when a French journalist brought in a loaded revolver in a breast pocket. Long hours and malfunctioning earphones made the courtroom a "citadel of boredom."

What Went Wrong

Even at the end, things went wrong. Goering bit into a cyanide capsule rather than face the gallows. As for the others, the American sergeant bungled his job of hanging them. The rope is meant to break the convicts' necks, but in Nuremberg, noted West, "the 10 men slowly choked to death." Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former ambassador to the Court of St. James, wriggled for 20 minutes.

Still, Nuremberg was a success. It was a success because it happened fast. Within two years of surrendering, the Nazi leaders had been convicted and executed. It was a success because of the facts it laid out: the mass murders, the deportations. The now well-known lampshades made of human skin first revealed during the trial at Nuremberg. Evidence trumped courtroom theatrics and the former pilot's excuses in the end.

Goering faded even before the trial was over. Seeing Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher and Goering brought to justice made the creation of the West German state possible. Nuremberg made Germany more stable in the longer run. It helped make Germany democratic as well.

Exorcising Tyranny

All of which suggests several things about Saddam's trial.

The first is that this is a trial where we should postpone cynicism, for it has the potential to exorcise tyranny just as Nuremberg did.

The second is that the trial should move faster, or it will be like The Hague — a farce. Keeping the trial in Baghdad has been wise. Nuremberg worked out better than The Hague has because the court house was part of the scene of the crime.

Finally, the dead of the village of Dujail, for whose murder Saddam is being tried, should be the focus and not the former dictator's shaving habits. Let the cameras spend more time with the friends and relatives of the victims.

If we forget them, there is Nuremberg to remind us.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2006 Bloomberg

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