The film Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) is a powerful historical courtroom drama based loosely on the trial of the Nazi Judges. The film focuses on Spencer Tracy as Judge Dan Haywood a rock-ribbed Republican who, while not the first choice for the job, is determined to do his duty and deliver justice in the trial of four German judges. Even though the trials are set in 1948 and the prominent Nazi leaders have been executed, they are on trial for crimes against humanity and for supporting the Nazi regime’s atrocity. In their role, they aided and abetted the regime.
Although this is a fictionalized account, it presents a compelling story of the Nuremberg trials and provides lessons for how we understand America and the Trump administration in the wake of the Mueller report. On a superficial level we can say that Mueller is like Judge Haywood diligently doing his duty despite the potential temptations and pitfalls that await (Marlene Dietrich plays her role wonderfully) as well as the various political pressures that emerge during the trial. At a critical point, the geopolitical tensions of the time come to the surface as the Berlin Blockade causes Haywood’s superiors and some colleagues to suggest that it would be expedient to show leniency to the defendants as the Germans are needed in the conflict that would become the Cold War.
The judges are defended by a brilliant defence attorney Rolfe played by Maximillian Schnell. For Trump, that role would not be played by one person (sorry Rudy Giuliani) instead it would fall on the whole constellation of defenders. In many ways, there is a strong parallel to how Trump and his defenders behaved and Rolfe’s defence tactics and methods. Rolfe explains that whatever the Nazis did about racism and eugenics, the Americans had done similar terrible things. In this we can hear echoes of Trump’s defence of Putin (“You think our country’s so innocent….”). What is particularly poignant, especially in the age where Trump supporters enjoy how he mocks the weak, vulnerable, and the defenceless, is when Rolfe neutralizes the testimony of a feeble-minded man, Rudolph Petersen played brilliantly by Montgomery Clift (cast against type), who was testifying to being sterilized. One can almost hear the Trump supporters respond “Womp, Womp” or “Fuck your Feelings” when Petersen leaves the witness chair.
The main lesson, though, to draw from the film regarding Trump, his administration, and America is the final scene. In that scene, one of the judges, played by Burt Lancaster seeks to find some common ground with judge Haywood after he sentenced all the defendants to life in prison.
Lancaster says “By all that is right in this world, your verdict was a just one.” He then tries to avoid responsibility for the Holocaust by saying “I never knew that it would come to that.” Haywood response is perhaps the best summary for the Trump supporters. “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
We might think this is the moment we waited for when the Nazi judges were sentenced and justice served. In an important sense, justice was served and we can feel vindicated by the judgement and the movie. Yet, the scene, and the film, like Trump and his administration with the Mueller report, does not end there. Instead, as Haywood walks down the prison corridor away from Lancaster’s cell, we see text on the screen. It explains that even though 99 defendants were sentenced to prison terms at the Nuremberg trials that took place in the American Zone, all were freed by the time the film was released in 1961.
Despite having been found guilty of crimes against humanity, these men were free within a few years. Now one can argue that the key Nazis were all dead so justice had been served. The same could be said for the Mueller report. There are people in prison for crimes and what the Mueller report did not do is indict the president. In this, the Mueller report may have rendered an important judgement yet, it remains to be seen whether there are any meaningful consequences and whether those consequences are long lasting. In the end, the question of consequences and whether they can be escaped or must be endured are not legal questions but political questions. As political questions, they come back to the power of the pardon as well as what the public are willing to tolerate. What we have seen so far suggests that the public are wiling to endure and accept a lot more than the political pundits, commentators thought they would or should tolerate or accept.
The Mueller Report like the Judgement at Nuremberg forces us to consider what price is to be paid for decent politics and whether that price is worth paying. That is the open question for both works.