It Was Because We Didn’t Want to Know

Judgment at Nuremberg is a fictionalized account drawn from the second round of trials of war criminals in Allied-occupied Germany. Based on a television play by Abby Mann, the trial at the center of the story concerns four judges involved in sentencing people to sterilization based on supposed inferiorities and to death for racial “defilement”.

Spencer Tracy plays the lead American judge, in one of his last movie roles. Burt Lancaster plays Ernst Janning, one of the four German judges on trial, an eminent legal scholar who initially refuses to participate in his defense or to recognize the authority of the court.

The cast of the 1961 film features Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer, and even William Shatner as a dirndl-chasing American military officer. Schell and the screenplay received Oscars, Tracy, Clift, and Garland all received nominations, along with the art and set direction, the cinematography, the costume design, the director (Stanley Kramer, who preceded this movie with On the Beach and Inherit the Wind and followed it with It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), the editing, and the picture itself (it lost to West Side Story). The film was one of the first mass media venues in which images from Nazi concentration camps were shown.

Toward the end of the trial, Janning decides to break his silence with a speech that addresses the willingness of people to put patriotic fervor ahead of human decency and the tendency to not ask questions they would be uncomfortable knowing the answers to. Like all too many documents of the post-war, post-McCarthy era it strikes an awful lot of chords with the current political situation. Or maybe it’s just me.

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! Re-militarize 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 begun 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.

More of the speech at American Rhetoric.