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Nuremberg Trials: Pursuit of Justice

January 28, 2013 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

What happens when there is a conflict between human values and the law of the land?

Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, a week before Germany's surrender. The "heroic" leader of the German people chose not to face the consequences of defeat. But twenty-one other Nazi leaders mainly responsible for the criminal acts of the Germans survived.

It was at Nuremberg, in 1946, that an international tribunal was formed to bring these murderers to justice. No power on earth, of course, could bring the eleven million victims – six million Jews and five million others – back to life. But perhaps this act of the world going on record that it would not tolerate inhuman acts on this scale might serve to prevent similar horrors in the future.

Nuremberg represented a giant leap forward in the legal thinking of mankind. The defense of the Nazi officers, that they were "only acting under orders," was rejected; people must obey a "higher law" if the law of the land is completely immoral. Murder can never be justified, even when the government approves of its practice.

Do you remember how the prophet Nathan had expressed this very same truth to King David, that even the most powerful ruler could not place himself above the law? It took many centuries but at long last, at the price of eleven million people, the world finally understood what the Bible had taught ages ago!

As Julius Streicher was being led to the gallows, he inexplicably shouted out "Purimfest – Purim festival." Amazingly enough, Streicher had made a connection with an ancient story about the first attempt in Jewish history – the story of Haman – to destroy the entire Jewish people. The story ended with the ten sons of Haman hung and the Jews surviving. Is it simply a bizarre coincidence that the judgment of Nuremberg, too, ended with exactly ten Nazi leaders condemned to pay for their crimes by hanging? And was Streicher's last word a "coincidence" that forces us to acknowledge this incredible linkage?

The Bible commands us: "Justice, justice, you shall pursue" (Deut. 16:20). Punishment is not vengeance. It is making a statement of principle. To condone wickedness is to encourage it. And so the world that had sinned with both deed and with silence strove to redress its wrongs after the defeat of Nazi Germany. To its credit, the civilized world regained its voice in the post World War II era.

from "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture" (Alpha Books)

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