Throughout the Second World War
Britons and Americans had contemplated the post-war future of Germany.
There was consensus on only one point; that it had to be changed.
They discussed a variety of alternatives ranging from punitive and
vengeful policies, to those which were educational and advocated
reform. The War Crimes Trials have conventionally been viewed as
part of the first category. Thus it is refreshing to see the trials
being regarded as part of the broad re-educative effort, rather
than the usual perception of a purely retaliatory exercise motivated
by a desire for punishment. Bloxham asserts that the trials
were the chief means by which Nazism was examined in depth; they
were the scalpel to the bludgeon of the larger occupation and re-education
policy, the foil to generalities. (p. 80)
This examination of British and American war crimes policy stands
as a contribution to the growing field of literature that considers
the importance of memory and specifically Holocaust memory. The
interesting facet of this book is that it considers the memory
promulgated by the British and Americans at the War Crimes Trials.
The importance of both judicial and collective
memory is stressed. It is within the collective sphere
that the prosecutors at Nuremberg failed. The trials can thus be
seen to be as much about Allied understanding of, and attitude toward,
Nazi crimes, as they are a legal representation of Nazi criminality.
Bloxhams contention is an engaging and valid one. There is
a general omission in the historiography of the occupation of Germany
regarding the relationship between victors and vanquished. Studies
have tended to see the process of change in a one-sided way, ignoring
the fact that British and US perceptions and attitudes towards the
former enemy countries also developed and changed as a result of
interaction between them. These trials had an important function
not only in Germany, but also for the society that tried them. As
a former American Occupationaire states, evaluation of the 'German
and Japanese occupation experiences will tell us something not only
about our impact on post-war German and Japanese history, but particularly
our own.(1) This study also
aims to correct a failing in 'Nuremberg historiography'.
The book begins with an excellent introduction to the fundamental
conception of and means of evaluation used in this study. It includes
an explanation of the problems associated with the study of this
topic and the essential problems faced in 1945. It is then divided
into three parts. The first part is concerned with the implementation
of the punitive aspects of the trials; and with British and American
reaction to the immediate past. Trial policy thus stands as an example
of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the mastery of the past)
in the wake of the Second World War. The second part concerns the
representation of the past through the trials. It stresses their
refractory nature, using the main metaphor of the courtroom as a
prism. The third part considers the connections between the courtroom
and posterity. The major actors, such as American representative
Justice Jackson, were acutely aware of their historical responsibility.
They were under no illusions that what they were about to do was
history. Bloxham quotes Jackson thus: the documents
make dull publicity, but they [seem] to me to make the sounder foundation
for the case, particularly when the record is examined by the historian.
The trials are placed in their legal and historical context. The
expansion of the rule of international law provided the precedent
for further international courts and tribunals and had a distinctly
American flavour. American domination of the trials is reflected
in the sometimes seemingly one-sided comparative aspects of this
book. The British are shown to be less committed to the trials.
This can be explained by the fact that Britain was labouring under
great economic duress, in contrast to the United States. Thus the
overriding influence of personnel and financial problems is shown
to be particularly acute for the British. The proceedings are seen
as an attempt at understanding Nazism and specifically Nazi criminality.
The idea of legal redress for state crimes was novel and contentious.
(p. vii) This idea was also 'novel' because it concerned a country
in which neither Britain nor America had a direct national interest.
The historical context is the close of the Second World War and
the abiding relevance of study of this immediate post-war period,
despite the prolific amount of representations that have followed
it, is correctly asserted.
This examination is an attempt to recontextualise the trials after
the historiography has largely removed them from their contemporary
context. The trials, as well as the occupation of Germany as a whole,
have to be placed within the context of the burgeoning Cold War.
Bloxham shows that the impact of the Cold War on the objectives
of the trials was entirely negative. The effects of realignment
were detrimental to the successful prosecution of Nazi crimes and
pragmatic nation-state interests began to override foreign policy
ideals. For example, the image of the Wehrmacht was cleansed
by the impact of the Cold War. In addition, Bloxham argues that
the Allies did not prepare the ground for acceptance of the
true breadth of German guilt. (p. 132) The fundamental problem
faced by all of the occupation policies is that the Germans were
primarily concerned with staying alive. The devastation, hunger
and disease were not sound bases for the moral regeneration of German
society. As Brecht put it, Erst kommt das Fressen, dann
kommt die Moral. (First grub, then morality:
quoted p. 137)
This re-contextualisation also involves the notion of the use of
the trials as a re-educational tool. The idea of using a legal trial
served a re-educative function, as a fair trial exemplified the
democratic system. The educational intent of the IMT project
was established, but it does not appear that the teachers were particularly
well informed about their subject matter. (p. 63) This is
attributed to ambiguities within British and American responses
to the Holocaust, as its true nature unfolded. For example, the
British were concerned only with crimes that related directly to
British citizens, while the Americans feared the use of any atrocity
Nazi criminality was frequently discussed during the war and the
idea that the Nazi party represented an organised form of gangsterism
was prevalent, certainly within the US. The image of the gangster
was a repeated one in the popular press and film. The impression
that the Nazi party was a criminal organisation was an enduring
stereotype. It was rife even at the highest levels. For example,
in an address of August 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt stated we
have been forced to call out
the Sheriffs posse
that Gangsterism may be eliminated in the community of nations.(2)
The decision to punish Nazi war criminals had been made early on
in the war. Roosevelt announced his plan to try Nazi war criminals
on 7 October 1942.(3) The trials
were also concerned with the causes of Nazi criminality.
This was the disease that had to be rooted out. Part of the cure
During the prosecution of the trials, the Americans placed great
emphasis on the idea of 'conspiracy'. The purpose of the War Crimes
Trials was to prove this conspiracy theory. As a result, the Holocaust
becomes merely a by-product of a monolithic German-Nazi conspiracy
for European domination through war. (p. 12) Bloxham asserts
that this preoccupation accounts for the intentionalist
school and many of the blind alleys into which Holocaust scholarship
has wandered. (p. 12)
Bloxhams major criticism of the trials is that, although
they were successful in establishing a record of Nazi criminality
and aggression (p. vii), there was a failure to present the
fate of the Jews as unique amongst Nazisms other victims.
In fact their fate was downplayed. Despite being seen as an end
in itself, their extermination was tied to Nazi attempts at world
conquest. The Allies were authors of subtle re-writings of
the Nazi extermination projects. (p. ix) Attention was focused
away from the victims. Presentation of Nazi atrocities, and specifically
the Holocaust, was used in a peculiar way as part of the punishment
and re-education process.
There is a dichotomy between the guilt-evocation campaign and policies
that seemed unwilling to deal with Nazi murder. For example, the
showing of the film Todesmühlen (The Mills of
Death, a montage of images of death in various Nazi institutions),
the display of posters showing victims at Dachau declaring Das
ist Eure Schuld (This is Your Fault) and the
forced viewing of recently-liberated camps by local populations,
is at odds with the reluctance, during the war particularly, to
use this type of atrocity story as propaganda, and with the separation
of Germans from their Nazi leaders when considering responsibility
These contradictions are tied to the general ambiguities of American
and British policy regarding possibilities for Germany's future.
Is she a country that is capable of being re-educated, or is she
a nation complicit in the crimes of the Nazis? Is there an 'other'
Germany? Bloxham acknowledges the contradictory nature of assessments
of culpability and efforts to differentiate between Nazis
and Germans. Jackson would distinguish between Nazis
and Germans in his opening speech of the trials; however, a question
mark remained in general policy-making.
The question of German guilt or collective guilt (Kollektivschuld)
is central to any discussion of the War Crimes trials as, of course,
criminal proceedings are by their very nature based upon a premise
of guilt and innocence. Attempts to prove the criminal nature of
the regime seemed to declare all Germans equally culpable. Yet this
is in direct contrast to wartime proclamations, such as 'we bring
no charge against the German race, as such, for we cannot believe
that God has eternally condemned any race of humanity.(4)
The trials themselves limited the guilt to a few individuals, thus
implicitly exonerating the wider population. In this reviewers
opinion, however, war guilt is only part of the concept of re-education
and Bloxhams study is not clear about a definition beyond
the assertion that introspection
was the key aim of
this re-education. (p. 132)
Bloxham here is in agreement with contemporary commentators, who
argued that the moral renewal of Germany had to be attained by individual
introspection and self-examination.(5)
The idea of collective German guilt was often viewed as the first
step toward re-education. Contemporary critics, however, pointed
out that the guilt-evocation campaign could not be this 'first step',
because it skips over the prior need to start reversing the
process of the demoralisation of the Germans.(6)
The usefulness of the trials of Nazis as a re-educational tool was
usually related to the prominence of the accused. The singling out
of 'major' Nazi criminals is of interest, as it appears contrary
to the policy of implicating the German people. This action exemplifies
the ambivalent nature of post-war policy conclusions regarding the
treatment of Germany and the Germans.
The discussion of German guilt began with the liberation of the
concentration camps and ended in the Spring/Summer of 1947, with
the announcements of the Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan,
which changed Germanys role in the international system. The
Germans were now separated from the crimes of the Third Reich, as
they were now viewed as a trustworthy ally. As Bloxham acknowledges,
this was pure political pragmatism. Finally, on the question of
guilt, he raises an interesting hypothesis that the supposed
innocence of the German soldier was transposed to the whole of the
German population. (p. 12)
The trials are seen as falling short for a number of reasons. Bloxham
shows that the British and American attempts to come to terms with
Nazism failed and that this failure is exemplified perfectly by
their inability to understand the Holocaust. The trial medium was
also unsuccessful in capturing anybodys imagination and later
the western powers came up with sophisticated justifications for
the release of war criminals. The primary reason for this seems
to have been that the issue had become embarrassing. In addition,
throughout the trial proceedings emphasis was permanently placed
on the perpetrators of the crimes rather than the victims. Victimhood
was not associated with the actual victims of the Nazi regime, as
they were given little, to no, attention. By the 1950s, with Cold
War alignments firmly established, the victims had become the German
people as a whole. They were victims of a terrifying, all-seeing,
all-knowing and brutal regime. The trials also failed, as their
organisation meant that certain defendants were not tried. If a
defendants profile did not fit a case, then it was possible
for him to remain untried, despite the gravity of his crimes. Finally,
the Allies were not concerned with motivations for these crimes.
They contented themselves only with their causes. This can be seen
as a serious omission.
Bloxham argues that the racial murders committed by the Third
Reich were expressions of the essential quality of the regime, understanding
those crimes was and is fundamental to understanding Nazism.
(p. viii) Through cataloguing British and American shortcomings
in understanding these crimes, Bloxham thus demonstrates their failure
to understand Nazism. The trials were also political trials, with
proceedings affected by political biases, which in turn affected
the representation of the past: Even in the courtroom the
means and purposes of examining the past varied in accordance with
the different political agendas of the period. (p. ix)
In a further omission, the proceedings failed to distinguish between
the camp systems according to function, leading to the longstanding
confusion of concentration camps with extermination camps. The camp
was the pre-eminent symbol of Nazi atrocity (p. 11), but it
was not properly defined. This explains the proliferation of the
term 'concentration camp' as a generic term for Nazi atrocity. The
Dachau trial was of particular importance in this sense, especially
to American thinking. However, this exemplifies again the effect
of these trials. An individual camp is taken out of context by not
being located appropriately within the full system of genocide.
True understanding of the Holocaust was further hampered by Jacksons
belief in the documentary approach to evidence. This meant that
journalistic interest was often not sustained and this contributed
to the publics lacklustre enthusiasm for the trials. In addition,
the Tribunal maintained a continual suspicion of eyewitness testimony,
despite the fact that stories were often corroborated by documentary
evidence. Therefore, while some exaggerations originating with the
trials have remained in the historical record, so have the omissions.
(Bloxham gives the example of the murderous activities of some of
the lesser-known police organisations.)
The Trials' failure to assess the influence of certain groups –
for example, the Order Police – meant that these groups were
for many years excluded from historical accounts. As Bloxham observes,
The scale of Nazi criminality ultimately made every trial
programme a selective venture. (p. 54) Legal strictures, such
as limiting considerations to the period after American entry into
the war, also had a particular effect in relation to deliberations
on the fate of the Jews; for example, this specific decision
excluded discussion of the development of the camp system prior
to 1942. Concern regarding the Holocaust was not apparent and cases
that could have highlighted it were not brought to the fore. This
meant that the Shoah was not fully understood.
The concentration camp became the symbol of atrocity, but again
the Jewish factor was downplayed or avoided, with prosecutors preferring
to place emphasis on political prisoners. The murder of the Jews
is given a diminished role in the dominant interpretation of Nazism,
since the British and the American occupiers chose to build
their re-educational edifices on the foundation-stone of "Aryan"
suffering. (p. 80) Selective reporting of the trials cemented
misrepresentations of the camps. Often reports made conditions seem
worse than they were, while the actual worst examples were ignored.
The trials were also tinged by preconceptions. For example, the
trials perceived Nazism as an ideologically-driven monolithic system.
This again prevented a true grasp of its crimes.
It seems that prosecutors were almost bored with the issue of the
relationship between the Nazis and the Jews. There was a prevailing
mood that this had already been dealt with 'exhaustively'. However,
three of the four extermination camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka)
were completely excluded from the proceedings. The problem was not
one of lack of information. Instead it points to dysfuntional
processing and analysis of this material. Important details
were overlooked in the small number of eyewitness testimonies that
were used. Research gathered seems to have been remarkably accurate
but ineffectually exploited. It is only the number of victims that
appears to have been largely overestimated and the exact murder
methods slightly confused. The emphasis placed on gassing shows
the persistent and peculiar misconceptions regarding the methods
of killing. (p. 117)
This monograph is clearly the product of a well-researched project
and one of great interest. To see mention of the important idea
of re-education is excellent. Bloxham asserts that the trials can
be seen as a microcosm of the whole re-education
process (p. 225); yet this conclusion is open to debate.
If the trials are seen as a failure, does this mean that re-education
was a failure also? This is a question not addressed by Bloxham.
It would perhaps also have been illuminating to include discussion
of the representations of leading Nazis and Nazism during the Second
World War, if only as background. The important stereotype of gangsterism,
for example, is not discussed.(7)
He does, however, deal skilfully and thoroughly with the Trials'
impact on history and particularly the history of the Holocaust.
Bloxhams treatment of memory is especially interesting,
as despite the Trials' contemporary failings to come to terms with
the recent past, the Shoah has now taken centre stage in the popular
memory of Nazi crimes – perhaps even to the detriment of the
other crimes committed by the Nazis. Overall, this study is a significant
addition to our understanding of the preconceptions and purposes
of the War Crimes Trials; but perhaps even more importantly, it
addresses the origins of our understanding of the history of the
1. Robert Wolfe, ed., Americans
as Proconsuls – United States Military Government in Germany
and Japan, 1944-1952 (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern
Illinois Press, 1984), pp. xv-xvi.
2. Address at Ottawa, Canada,
August 25, 1943, in Samuel I. Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers
and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1943 The Tide Turns
(New York: Harper & Bros., 1950), pp. 365ff.
3. Samuel I. Rosenman, ed., The
Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1942
Humanity on the Defensive (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950),
p. 410. This was a repeated aim. See also 'The President asks that
frontiers be opened to victims of Nazi oppression and declares that
war criminals will be tried and punished, March 24, 1944', in Samuel
I. Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin
D. Roosevelt: 1944-45 Victory and the Threshold of Peace,
(New York: Harper & Bros., 1950), p. 103f.
4. Samuel I. Rosenman, ed., The
Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1944-45
Victory and the Threshold of Peace, pp. 352-3.
5. Karl Jaspers, The Question
of German Guilt (New York: Dial Press, 1947).
6. Percy Winner, The German
road back: an inquiry into guilt, punishment and expiation,
The New Republic (4 June 1945), p. 779.
7. In an American training film
[Here Is Germany, War Department Orientation Film, O.F.-11,
1944], for example, the filmmakers did not miss the opportunity
to present Hitler and his gang visually and verbally as an assortment
of 'dope addicts, perverts, bullies and cranks'.