Photo of the Nuremberg trial

Nuremberg trial : a tribute to History

On November 20th 2020, the Nuremberg trial’s opening, which provided the beginnings of international criminal justice, celebrated its 75th anniversary. Our Nancy campus commemorated this historical date by inviting, as one of our Sciences Po College Seminar Series, Philippe Sands, author of Retour à Lemberg, Astrid von Busekist, University Professor of Political Science, associated researcher at the Centre de recherches internationales (CERI) Sciences Po and Dr Viviane Dittrich, Deputy Director of the International Nuremburg Principles Academy. Relive the highlights of this fascinating seminar thanks to Martha Rosental, our second year student

If you were standing in front of a criminal who organized the deportation and extermination of millions of people and you had his fate in your hands, what would you do? Would you treat this human being humanely even though he has scorned humanity? Or would you choose to inflict on him what he has inflicted on millions of individuals?

Seventy-five years ago, this was precisely the dilemma that the four victorious powers of the Second World War faced when they had to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Nazis of occupied Germany. At the time, the Allies tried to determine whether they should opt for bloodthirsty revenge or the submission of these war criminals to what they had tried to destroy with the most meticulous application: the rule of law.

 Retour a Lemberg

In the field of international criminal justice, “all roads lead to Nuremberg” according to Philippe Sands, a Franco-British international lawyer specialising in the defence of Human Rights. In 2017, he published the book East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, that was the subject of a conference organized by the Nancy campus on January 20, 2021 as part of the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial. The author was accompanied by Astrid von Busekist, who translated the French version of Sands’ book Retour à Lemberg, as well as by Viviane Dittrich, the Deputy Director of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy. In addition to presenting the work of Philippe Sands, this seminar provided an opportunity to relive the history of one of the founding trials of international criminal law.

A future shaping decision

Despite numerous debates as to the fate to be reserved for Nazi criminals, the Allies wanted at all costs to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, especially the failure of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and of the Leipzig War Crimes Trials that followed (1921). Consequently, the Allies ended up choosing the prosecution and the punishment of the Nazi crimes though law rather than through vengeance. It was in this context that the Nuremberg Trial took place from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. Despite the critics denouncing a victor’s justice as well as the impunity of the crimes that were committed by the Allies during the war, this "trial of the century" is often considered as the “birthplace of modern international criminal law”, according to the words of Viviane Dittrich. Indeed, in addition to charging 24 main war criminals with two already existing crimes - Crimes against Peace and War Crimes - it was the first prosecution in history for Crimes against Humanity, which symbolised a major legal novelty. Thus, the Nuremberg Trial established itself as a trial of reference, while defining major principles of international law affirmed in 1946 by the United Nations in the General Assembly Resolution 95. 

For these reasons, Philippe Sands' first words at the conference underscored the crucial role of the Nuremberg Trial in the history of international criminal law. Then, he raised the subtle link between the trial and his book, which combines the author's desire to put words on the silences that weighed on the history of his maternal family on the one hand, with the discovery of disconcerting historical coincidences on the other hand.

Carrying a message

In 2010, Philippe Sands gave a lecture in Lviv, the city where his grandfather Leon Buchholz had spent his childhood before having to flee to Vienna in 1914. This city, located on the eastern periphery of the Auto-Hungarian Empire, has undergone many political and geographical upheavals, so that the city has known four different names in the course of history: Lemberg, then Lwów, then Lvov, then Lemberg again, and finally Lviv.

Lviv, erstwhile Lemberg, the city holding Philippe Sands' family secrets. Lviv, erstwhile Lemberg, the city where two of the fathers of international law, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, studied in the inter-war period, later conceptualizing respectively the notions of "crime against humanity" and "genocide", which both occupied a central place at the Nuremberg Trial. Lviv, the city where the “butcher of Poland” Hans Frank, Hitler’s preeminent legal adviser who was sentenced to death in Nuremberg, publicly announced in 1942 the mass murder of the Jewish population, which included the families of Leon, Hersch and Raphael. Lviv, the cradle of the maternal family of the author, a descendant of Holocaust survivors who became an international lawyer, happens to connect to the history of one of the founding trials of international criminal law.

Martha Rosental

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