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25 November 2020updated 30 Nov 2020 1:20pm

Philippe Sands’ Diary: In Nuremberg, I’m reminded of how far we have come – and how much further some have to go

When the first international criminal trial began on 20 November 1945, it set the precedent for holding war criminals to account, and an end to impunity for mass crimes.

By Philippe Sands

On 19 November, I travelled to Nuremberg for the 75th anniversary of the opening day of the famous trials. The commemorations took place in Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice, with Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  My trip didn’t seem possible when Bavaria adopted a mandatory five-day Covid-19 quarantine for new arrivals. Every rule has an exception, however, and the president’s office determined that I fell into the “absolutely necessary” category, provided I had a negative Covid-19 test – which I did. The journey was swift, with Heathrow largely shuttered, which felt sad. The only flight to Frankfurt was brimming, but I was alone on the train to Nuremberg. The Grand Hotel where I stayed – and also where many prosecutors resided back in 1945 – was empty.


Historical precedent

I first visited Courtroom 600 in 2006, when I was in the city for a World Cup game – England vs Trinidad & Tobago – played alongside the Nazi rally grounds that were filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. Back then you had to write to a judge to get permission to visit the famous courtroom, as it was still ­operational (and continued to be ­until last February). More or less intact, with the old wood panels and massive carved stone door frames, it’s a place that opens the imagination.

Here, on 20 November 1945, the world’s first international criminal trial opened, and “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” entered public consciousness. An imperfect trial, perhaps, but it has come to represent the instinct for justice and the rule of law in our complicated world, and an end to impunity for mass crimes. But for the trial of Hermann Göring and his co-defendants, there would have been no Yugoslav or Rwandan tribunals; no International Criminal Court; no Genocide Convention; no arrest of Augusto Pinochet in London. Nor, last December in the Hague, would I have found myself seated a few feet from Aung San Suu Kyi as the Nobel Peace Prize winner defended Myanmar from charges of genocide against the Rohingya community. All roads lead to Nuremberg, it might be said.

[see also: Philippe Sands on the Uighurs: “Why does it matter if we call it a genocide?”]

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Raab shirks responsibility

The commemoration opened, on 20 November, with Ben Ferencz, who, aged 100, is the last living prosecutor from the Nazi era. “Law not war,” he told us. For President Steinmeier, the trials offered hope for the world, an example of justice, a possible silver lining to horror. He referenced a film made by my friend David Evans, which portrayed the quest for justice by two remarkable ­Yazidi women, who had been abducted and serially raped by Islamic State fighters. Between the lines of the president’s words, yet unspoken, was the hope that the America of Nuremberg would return.

That thought was then rudely interrupted by the next speaker, the first of four foreign ministers to beam in via video link. “Greetings everyone, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo here!” With the gravitas of a fairground impresario, jovial Mr Pompeo recalled his country’s historic leadership and assured us of its commitment to the highest ideals. “Let’s continue to learn the lessons of history and of Courtroom 600,” he said with a straight face, “let’s speak up boldly on attacks on human dignity wherever we find them.” Wherever? The silent gasps were audible, as everyone instantly settled on the panoply of Trumpian horrors, from the travel ban on Muslims to the separation of parents from their children at the border.

Pompeo will always make Dominic Raab look more decent, but the Foreign ­Secretary was, actually, rather good: authentic, thoughtful and personally touched by the trials, as his father had fled Czechoslovakia in 1938. As a former war crimes lawyer, he reminded us, he is aware of Britain’s “important” role at Nuremberg, and in “the development of international law and international criminal justice”. Raab’s words are powerful until you remember he is the first Foreign Secretary to support legislation – the Internal Market Bill – that will violate a UK treaty obligation in the EU withdrawal agreement. He also stuck two fingers up at the 2019 decision by the International Court of Justice that Britain’s last colony in Africa – the Chagos Archipelago – actually belongs to Mauritius, not the UK. I wonder if Raab ever reflects on whether his refusal to allow the Chagossians to return to the homes from which they were unlawfully deported decades ago is a modern “crime against humanity” for which he bears some responsibility?

[see also: How the US helped leading Nazis escape Europe]


Family ties

I sat on the closing panel with two other lawyers and the questions were so dry that I decided, instead, to address what ­Nuremberg meant for me. Two of my great-grandmothers, Malke Flaschner and Rosa Landes, were deported from Vienna in July 1942, to their deaths at Theresienstadt and ­Treblinka. Could they have imagined that a great-grandson would find himself seated here at the invitation of Germany’s president? Or that he has now a friend in Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, who sat in this room’s dock and was hanged for their and other murders? Life is strange.

[see also: Defining genocide]


Reconciling the past

Seventy-five years is not very long, yet it allows a genuine spirit of reconciliation. Like no other country, Germany has engaged with some of its past crimes and Courtroom 600 is part of that story. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s US and Boris Johnson’s Britain have turned their backs on a rules-based multilateral order. Nothing is forever, Courtroom 600 reminds us. Be vigilant, as seating arrangements are prone to change.

As the evening ended, I thanked the president for helping with the travel exemption. “The thanks are mine,” he says graciously, “for being with us.” Outside the Palace of Justice, a few protesters  were ­demonstrating against the new Covid-19 laws he had signed. “Like the Nazi-era,” they shout. As if. 

Philippe Sands is a lawyer and writer. His latest book, “The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive”, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump