Judgment

By

Leonard Zwelling

         Once again I found myself flat on my back in Hermann
Hospital with a partial bowel obstruction. For those of you who have never had
the pleasure, an NG tube, IV fluids and being NPO for a few days can really
suck. Fortunately, these rather primitive surgical maneuvers appear to have
been quite effective and I gobbled down some grits yesterday. At least that is
what the Hermann kitchen said they were. I doubt that they contained any
natural ingredients. It may have been all genetically-modified on the moon for
all I know about grits. Despite 9 years in North Carolina, I never got into
grits.

         The Turner Movie Channel is showing Oscar-nominated films for
the month leading up to the awards on Sunday. Yesterday afternoon, I was able
to see one that I had not viewed in about 50 years, Judgment at Nuremberg by
Stanley Kramer.

         The story is familiar. After the Nazis were defeated, those
Germans deemed most responsible for the atrocities perpetrated on humanity,
were formally tried and many, but not all, convicted. The film focuses on one
8-month trial of 4 Nazi justice officials, the most prominent of whom is played
by Burt Lancaster. His character was a very high- ranking jurist before the war
but was caught up in the frenzy of Hitler’s mad rush for German superiority and
racial purity. To hold onto power and prestige during the war, he compromised
his better judgment and civility to the war machine and is now on trial for
crimes against humanity.

         There are many great stars in the film from Spencer Tracy as
the head of the tribunal, to Lancaster, to Marlene Dietrich, to Montgomery
Clift, Richard Widmark, a very young William Shatner and Judy Garland. The
prosecution uses actual film from the liberated concentration camps to make
real the crimes that were the results of the decisions of the 4 defendants to
support German law even though it was immoral and unethical (e.g., harsh
sentences for even speaking with Jews).

The
claim of the defense headed by Maximilian Schell in an Oscar-winning
performance is that the jurists’ only job was to make sure the law is applied
as written, not to determine its wisdom or success at producing justice.

         The major themes are the prosecution’s position of there is
both right and evil and all men have free will to choose between them vs. the
defense’s that essentially, these men were only following orders. It was a very
Christian view of innate right and wrong and individual choice and free will vs.
the pragmatic view of moral relativism and groupthink leading to criminal
behavior that is sanctioned by the government.

         It is a film many of you have not seen as it was released in
1961 and is not readily available on DVD. But is worth seeking out and
watching, especially in the days of turmoil in a world where evil is on the
march again in the Middle East, the Ukraine and Africa and good men like the
American political leadership cannot articulate a courageous response which
only means the eventual response when it is forced upon the forces of good will
be that much more violent.

         Chamberlain learned that there was no appeasing Hitler and
the Schell character makes a good point in saying the whole world was guilty of
facilitating Hitler’s rise to power. Everyone is guilty, not just his 4
clients. But these 4 men were in unique positions to do something about it and
did not. They hid behind fear and took no risk and in that inaction allowed the
creation of Dachau and Auschwitz and the killing of millions.

         It is worth thinking about all of this in the context of the
personal. What would I have done if I had been confronted with my surroundings
turning hostile, my friends being carted away, and evil pervading the very air
that I breath? Would I have the courage to stand up and resist? Would I
sacrifice my comfort and security or that of my family just to say “this is
wrong?”

         Well,
would you? I’ll wait…

Leonard Zwelling