December 21, 2003 | Peter

Nuremberg’s Legacy

If only because of the way Saddam Hussein has been compared to Hitler, the process of ending his rule reminds us of the Nuremberg trials held after WWII. Running from 1945 to 1949, ten Nazi leaders were eventually executed, and Goering killed himself before sentence was carried out. Others were imprisoned for various periods.
No doubt there were different agendas at work in this signal event, but we should not dismiss the fact that here was an attempt to put human affairs back on a moral grounding. WWII, which many historians see as an extension of WWI, was probably the most catastrophic, deliberately-caused event in history. It nearly finished off international industrial civilisation, and if the subsequent Cold War had gone hot or the Americans had not been so pragmatic about aiding Europe through the Marshall Plan, it could have been the start of a new Dark Ages.
In 1945 everyone knew something dreadful had taken place, and some of them wanted to know what and why, and allocate responsibility. Naturally the victors decided the criteria for judgement, and they focussed on the extreme brutality of the Nazis.
The most important conclusion to come out of the trials was that each person must answer to their own conscience and cannot claim higher orders as an excuse for their behaviour. This is a radical idea and goes back to the most basic precepts about our ideas of right and wrong, as expressed in religion, philosophy, etc.
So the Nuremberg trials were a chance for civilisation to start again on sound, moral principles. What went wrong?
The simple answer is that politics reasserted itself over morality. Specifically, the ideological contest between communism and capitalism, put on hold while fascism was defeated, started up again. Winston Churchill, probably the most authoritive leader to come out of the war, made his famous ‘iron curtain’ speech in March, 1946, while the trials were underway. He didn’t start the Cold War, but he announced it, and it lasted for another 43 years.
And so here we are, the Cold War consigned to history, with another chance to make some basic rules to guide our increasingly global society. Some people think we have another bi-polar split, this time between modern, global civilisation and Islamic fundamentalism, while others argue that we are heading for a multi-polar ‘clash of civilisations’. According to these people, morality (and even its poor cousin, legality) must take second place to the need for ‘security’.
The real threat, of course, is from forces let loose by mass industrial and now global civilisation itself. It is runaway technology and the associated environmental impact that threatens to destroy civilisation, whether it be by nuclear or biological war or global warming, or some other global problem.
Nuremberg was an attempt to reset our moral compass and it is high time we had another go. Perhaps Saddam’s trial will be the start of such an effort.

Posted by Peter at 1:04 pm | Comments Off on Nuremberg’s Legacy |
Filed under: Uncategorized

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.