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December 9, 2016 / Congau

Lessons from Nuremberg

The lesson learned at the Nuremberg rials was supposedly that obeying order doesn’t free a person from guilt. That is certainly morally true. One can commit many terrible acts by obeying the authorities of a country like Nazi-Germany. But legally one is only guilty when breaking the law. The authorities of a country make the laws and whoever obeys them cannot be guilty of a crime.

The two concepts, morally guilty and legally guilty, should be strictly held apart, but unfortunately the lesson from Nuremberg was to confuse the two.

It doesn’t make sense to convict anyone for breaking a law that didn’t exist at the time and place when the incident occurred. Suppose your country was taken over by another power. It would then be very unfair if you were condemned according to new laws for something you did that was legal before the occupation. Yet that could happen according to the principle of Nuremberg.

The accused at Nuremberg had committed horrendous acts and deserve our unison moral condemnation, but the trials considered as legal events were a sham since they were tried according to laws introduced by the new occupiers.

Isn’t a moral condemnation enough? Why do we insist on courts, verdicts and punishment when the culprit is no longer a threat to society anyway?

Even last year, seventy years after the war, a decrepit man in his nineties was on trial in Germany for having been a guard at Auschwitz. For what purpose? Why not leave him to the judgment of his own conscience?

The long shadow of Nuremberg is the spirit of revenge and the arrogance of those who happened to land on the right side of history.

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