Review: “The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir” – Telford Taylor

Telford Taylor’s “The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir” is both a memoir/autobiography and a scholarly legal analysis of the International Military Tribunal.

The book begins with some details about Taylor and international law as it existed at the time of WWII. Taylor had served in the American Army intelligence in Europe during WWII before being assigned as assistant to Chief Counsel Robert H. Jackson at Nuremberg in 1944. He describes international law as it existed at the time of the establishment of London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, such as the Lieber Code, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Convention of 1864, the Kellogg-Briand Pact (Pact of Paris) of 1928, etc., and the legal challenges of including crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and the waging of aggressive wars in the Charter’s indictment.

Taylor moves on to describe the difficulties of reaching agreement on the indictment. Firstly, there were differences in what to do with the top ranking Nazis. The British initially supported killing all the major Nazis, while the Americans wanted a trial, which Taylor notes was a reversal of the outcome of WWI, when the British wanted a trial of Kaiser officials and the Americans were indifferent, if not opposed. Secondly, differences between Anglo-American and Continental European law posed major challenges on reaching an agreement between the U.S., Britain, France, and the USSR, which affected everything from what the indictment was and how it should be written, to whether or not the SS and the Gestapo could be charged as entities. Thirdly, the charge of “conspiracy”, the brainchild of Murray C. Bernays, to wage aggressive wars was and remained throughout the trial extremely controversial.

The rest of the book is a mixture of Taylor’s memoirs (what he heard, witnessed, experienced, etc.) and legal analysis (of the defense and prosecutions arguments, the evidence, etc.). This is where the value of the book really comes to light. Taylor offers a penetrating insider’s perspective of the participants (judges, prosecution, defense, and Nazi criminals), both within the courtroom and outside, and the progress of the trial.

Taylor describes Hermann Goering’s stunning victory over Jackson in the courtroom. According to Taylor, “Jackson was ‘unable to follow’ Goering, ‘much less outmaneuver him’” in his cross-examination. Jackson proceeded to have a meltdown in court, bitter at Goering’s victory over him, causing tension between the judges and the American prosecution. Goering was apparently too smart for the Americans; the British and Soviets were more effective with him. Throughout the book Taylor frequently describes the mental deterioration of Rudolph Hess throughout he trial. Despite the court psychologist’s evaluation of Hess as fit to stand trial, Taylor repeatedly makes it known that he disagreed. Taylor takes pity on Hess, which I found strongly disagreeable. Hess was a vicious Nazi that should have been hanged with the rest of them, but that is my opinion.

Here is a glimpse of how Taylor describes some of the Nazis. Ribbentrop was “regarded with utter scorn” at Nuremberg. Keitel was “the sort of weak man whom Hitler could count on to follow his orders regardless of law or morals.” Kaltenbrunner was “the most ominous-looking man in the dock and had no friends there.” Rosenberg “was maddeningly verbose and drove both his counsel (Dr. Alfred Thoma) and [President Judge] Lawrence to distraction with his insistence on treating every question as raising theoretical and historical matters. It was much easier to find him irritating than evil, and it was not until the evidence was forced onto the stage that one became aware of the atrocious consequences of this woolly and maundering man’s activities.” Frank “was no more attractive than most of his fellow defendants, but he was among the more interesting.” Frick “was the consummate bureaucrat — stiff, orderly, taciturn, unimaginative — and the least interesting of the defendants” as well as “a very cold fish.” Streicher posed the most difficult legal issues, his sole crime at Nuremberg being incitement since he had never participated or organized any violence against Jews. Schacht “was at the top of Dr. Gilbert’s IQ ladder (though only marginally above Seyss-Inquart, Goering, and Doenitz)” and as well as having superior education and linguistic skills, “he was the most sophisticated in the ways of the world. To those whom he respected, Schacht could be charming, but he did not suffer fools gladly and was arrogant, tough, sarcastic, and domineering. He was invariably convinced that he was both right and in the right…”. Funk was “Pasty, pudgy, in poor health, blubbering when testimony or photographs illuminated the horrors of the Nazi record, and openly scared — a pitiful wreck of a man who had fallen beneath respect, and knew it.” Schirach “ was the weakest of the defendants. If wimps had been spoken of, Schirach would have been so styled.”

Almost 200 pages of the book are devoted to the Nazi criminals, their testimonies, the arguments of their defense lawyers and the prosecution, and Taylor’s personal assessment of the Nazi criminals and the conduct of their trials. The above is a glimpse of the insider’s perspective that Taylor offers.

An element of the book I strongly disliked — and eventually found unbearable — was Taylor’s American righteousness. Throughout the book Taylor repeatedly criticizes all the other powers for their actions during WWII, such as (correctly) British and French appeasement of the Nazis, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and British unwillingness to provide evidence to the defense counsel of British plans for the occupation of Norway, and (incorrectly) especially the Soviets, such as the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact and the division of Poland, the Soviet-Finnish War, the pre-WWII purges, and the Katyn Massacre. But nowhere does he criticize the U.S., even when evidence of American crimes under the Nuremberg charter are brought out in open court. For example, Doenitz, commander of the German Navy, was accused of sinking British merchant ships in violation of the London Submarine Protocol of 1936. According to Taylor, this agreement prohibited the sinking of merchant ships without the attacking vessel first placing “the passengers, crew, and ship’s paper in a place of safety.” Thus, Taylor writes, “the German practice was a gross violation, causing many deaths at sea, and the charge could well lead to a capital consequence” for both Nazi navy officers at Nuremberg. Yet, when Doenitz’s lawyer offered evidence of the U.S. Navy committing the exact same “gross violation” in the sinking of Japanese merchant ships, all Taylor has to say is that the British prosecutor Fyfe’s objection that “the question whether the United States broke the laws and usages of war is quite irrelevant…it raises the old problem of evidence directed to tu quoque” and that Fyfe was “on sound ground; in general criminal law, if a defendant has committed a particular crime, the fact that others have also, even if the others are the accusers, is no defense.” The fact that American crimes during WWII receive a pass from Taylor throughout the book really diminished my respect for Taylor and his legal analyses.

Overall it was a really eye-opening book about a critical period in the establishment of modern international law.

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