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‘Justice Justice You Shall Pursue’ Legacies of the Nuremberg and Eichmann Trials

By Randy Pinsky 

Seventy-five years ago, there was a reckoning of the human consciousness, a catalyst in international law, and a new standard in prosecuting war criminals. The Nuremberg Trials was a powerful moment in time when Nazi perpetrators were held to account, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were finally made public. 

When examined against the 60th anniversary of the Eichmann Trial, what have been the legacies of these landmark events? 

“The objective was that when the war was over, there would be an accounting and there would be justice,” described Holocaust scholar Stephen Berk speaking at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec synagogue on December 15. The main military and political protagonists of the Third Reich would be put on trial, with thousands of pieces of evidence collected against them; a critical precedent in addressing war crimes.

Real or Hollow Justice?

However, many wondered if the justice accrued was of a symbolic, rather than substantial, nature. 

For one, three of the four main architects of the genocide were absent; Hitler and propaganda leader Joseph Goebbels had committed suicide, and Hitler’s private secretary had disappeared. It would be the second in commands who would be held to account. 

For another, the defendants were provided with the best lawyers available (Berk noted that had British Prime Minister Churchill had his way, they would have all been executed, and that would have been that). 

The irony of this decision was not lost on the public; one American participant observing, “It’s a pity that defendants in the US don’t get the support the Nazis got.”

A Blind Eye in Favor of Progress

The hollowness of justice was perhaps most clinched with the incoming rumblings of the Cold War. In the context of US-Soviet rivalry, the parties were torn between reconciling the past and building the future. 

There was a scramble to scoop up the former Nazi scientists before the Soviet Union did; prematurely concluding the trials. 

“Rather than be held accountable like other important figures in Nazi Germany, they were given new lives.” (‘The Former Nazi that Launched America’s Space Program’). Most noteworthy was rocket engineer and former slave labor leader Wernher von Braun who became one of the chief architects of the American space program. 

So In Name Only?

Given these contradictions, many feel the Nuremberg Trials fell short of their objectives. 

Justice was incomplete at best, and rather than serve as a deterrence to state-sanctioned aggression, Berk noted there have been 24 ‘official’ conflicts since then, with Cambodia and Rwanda being tragic examples. 

Nevertheless, the legacy of Nuremberg demonstrates that there were a number of critical advancements that would not have otherwise been possible. 

Indeed, the legal structure would lay the foundation for international jurisprudence for crimes against humanity and war crimes. It would also set the stage for the International Criminal Court which would indict individuals such as Ugandan rebel leader, Joseph Kony, Libyan dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and former Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir. 

Berk also believes Germany is one of the strongest democracies today largely because of the trials. “It was the right thing to do,” he said, referring to the Biblical obligation of ‘tzedek tzedek tirdoff’ (‘justice justice, you shall pursue’). 

The second part would follow a decade and a half later. 

The Eichmann Trial

On May 4, the Azrieli Institute hosted a virtual screening and discussion of ‘Memories of the Eichmann Trial’ in recognition of the trial’s 60th anniversary. The event was in affiliation with Israel’s Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center) and the Jewish Public Library. Broadcast only once on Israeli television in 1979, the documentary was rediscovered and restored in 2011. 

“For the first time, the story of the Holocaust was told in open court by more than 100 survivors who had been summoned as witnesses to tell their stories” (‘A Living Record’).

Adolph Eichmann was the chief operating officer of the genocide, overseeing the movement with callous efficiency and ruthless thoroughness. After the war, he escaped from Germany and went into hiding. It was only through a tip and a photo that the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, was able to launch the manhunt (’Operation Finale’). ‘Operation Finale’ was led by the ‘Nikdim’ or the ‘Avengers,’ named for the fact that most of its members were survivors, including famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Eichmann would be tracked to Argentina living under a pseudonym, kidnapped and brought to Israel. 

Attorney General Gideon Hausner would set the tone when he announced he was speaking on behalf of six million accusers “[who] cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger at the man in the glass dock.”

The trial was a crucial first-hand account of the horrors of the Holocaust (’Memories of the Eichmann Trial’). It also served as a catalyst and precedent for other war criminal trials, as well as impact perceptions of the rights of survivors. 

A Powerful Symbol of Justice 

In The Eichmann Trial (2011), Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt wrote, “[it] was different from [previous] war crimes trial[s] because it featured stories of the Holocaust survivors and captured the emotions that weren’t part of the document-heavy Nuremberg trials” (‘The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years Later’). 

More than convicting a murderer, it also exhibited justice prevailing over evil and honor over ignorance. 

She continued that “the when and how of [Eichmann’s] capture were eclipsed by the who; who found him and more importantly, who would try him” (‘The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years Later’).

Indeed, taking place in Israel, in its Bar Mitzvah year, prominently in front of the state emblem of a menorah, was exceptionally powerful. From a mere dream had developed a country which could mastermind a kidnapping and convict a criminal mastermind. 


In reflecting upon the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, what has been accomplished? 

Some feel the trials set an important standard while others are discouraged by the perceived as minimal deterrence to crimes against humanity. 

In spite of these lackings, it is indisputable that the trials set a meaningful standard for human consciousness, advances in international law, and an opportunity for the survivors to finally have their stories heard. \

The overarching question remains however; how do we make the promise of ‘never again’ more than just words?

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