Hi, everybody, welcome to Dance News History. It is the anniversary of the Nuremberg trials this year seventieth anniversary. They were held in autumn in fall 1945, a remarkable departure from past practice. Leaders, military and political of the Nazi regime were brought together and tried for war crimes by the victors.
Stand to counsel. These trials tend to gloss over the fact that the Soviets were fully involved alongside the British, the French and the Americans. And Francine Hersh has written a brilliant new book, Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg, showing how the Soviets were both responsible for the trials existing in the form they did, but also how they shaped the course and judgments in those cases.
It shows that it's a really fascinating story, which shows how the fissures of the Cold War opening up before the gun barrels of the armies in Europe are even cold.
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Fran, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Thanks so much for having me, Dad. It's a real thrill to be here. Very embarrassing. I did not realize the Soviets had anything to do with their book, but I thought it was the Western allies to prosecuting the German the Nazi operatives that they they particularly had a beef with. So tell me, what was the Soviets involvement?
That's really kind of funny. I mean, sometimes when I say that that people don't realize that I don't know that I'm like, I'm I really am. I overstating that. But the more people I talk to, the more people say that they really didn't know that part of the story. And the Soviets had a fundamental role. They were one of the four countries of the prosecution, along with the United States, Britain and France. Being part of the prosecution meant that they were part of the tribunal that were judging the Nazis as well, because the four countries did both.
And and not only that, not only did they have a fundamental role in the trials, but as I argue in the book, I don't think the Nuremberg trials would have happened without the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was out in front during the darkest days of the war, really pushing for a special international tribunal to try the Nazi leaders. And at that point, early on, the Western powers will at that point, Francis defeated. But but Britain and and the United States are very resistant to this idea, in part because the war is still going on and they are concerned about retaliation, but in part because there's this idea that can can you really try the leaders of a state for committing crimes and for what the Soviets were actually starting to argue was that they should be tried not just for war crimes, but for what they were talking about then is the crime of waging an aggressive war.
And one of the Soviet jurists, a guy by the name of our own training, was really out in front there as well, arguing that the crime of a crime against peace, waging an aggressive war, should be criminally prosecuted as well. And so that became a really fundamental part of the legal framework of the Nuremberg trials, too. And I think it's really interesting that in a lot of the books in the US that I've read about this early on and this is starting to change, but especially when I first started working on this project, people talked about the US as coming up with this idea of crimes against peace with Marie Bernays in the war department.
And and in fact, lots of people were talking about aggressive war, about crimes against peace. We kind of I was able to trace the paper trail of seeing how China's ideas made it to London, to the meetings of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, and then made it across the Atlantic to the war department and to the White House as well.
It's so interesting that it was a Soviet idea that because there was a period of the war when the Soviets thought, you know what, the allies might reach Berlin first and they might just let all these guys off the hook, you know, so so I wonder if the Soviets go, I guess when it turned out actually they were the ones who captured Berlin and made the first serious inroads into the Reich, they must have been tempted to kind of dispense with the Western allies and just hold these trials themselves.
I mean, did the Soviet relationship, the trials change depending on the course of the war?
Yeah, they always wanted a foreign power tribunal or three power tribunal early on and France brought in. And when they're calling early on in October, nineteen forty two for a special international tribunal, the war is still going on. Victory. It's a dream, right? No one knows what's going to happen with the war at that point.
That part of what prompted them to to talk about this is the Soviet Union has already been so devastated by the war. Right. In ways that it's hard for Americans, I think, to really understand just the lives lost, the amount of devastation that's been done. And so they're thinking already about reparations and they're thinking about ways to make a claim for reparations. And they understand that in order to make that claim, it would be helpful to have this tribunal.
The Soviets, of course, also have different ideas about what a war crimes trial might look like. And when they're talking about a special international tribunal, they're imagining something that's going to be pretty quick, open and shut. So what happens later as far as the war is kind of coming towards an end? There's still talk and there's still resistance from from the British in particular, actually, who are calling for more of an executive degree to deal with the head of the most heinous leaders and the most heinous crimes.
Right. And because they they say that how can you try like Hitler? How can you try going? And and the Soviets are really at that point, so so pushing for that. And another reason that the Soviets want this to be an allied venture is at the end of the war afterwards when everyone gets to Berlin. And all of that is because some of the major work of criminals, the most major ones, have been captured by the Americans and the British.
And so they want to be right in on that, too. They want to be part of this. For power alliance leader at the table, at the table of victors in order to add again, they think it's going to be quick, open and shut everything that happens, like once they get to Nuremberg, even a lot of what happens once they get to London in June and then have the London agreement in August. A lot of that. It comes as a surprise to them as well.
So it there's an irony here in this story that the great you know, the illiberal authoritarian USSR helps to kind of establish this precedent of of this kind of post-war international settlement as president of of trans national legal bodies and and which which echoes down to the present day. Absolutely.
I mean, that's that to me is the heart of the story. That to me is the heart of the story that we have this Nuremberg myth still that the Nuremberg trials were all about liberal Western leadership. It was all about the rule of law. We get this beautiful, glorious story of the leadership of Robert H. Jackson and the leadership of the Americans and the British and all of this and the fact that the Soviets against Stalin's Soviet Union had a fundamental role in putting together the legal framework of the trials, in carrying out the trials and then later on in deliberations about international law as well.
I think that's a really crucial part of the story. And I think it's critical for a number of reasons. You know, we in idealising Nuremberg, I don't think we're doing ourselves a favor. You know, still in some conferences that I've been going to and kind of attending virtually recently, when people talk about the Nuremberg trials, there's a tendency on the one hand to either hold it up as this try this as a triumph of the rule of law or to denounce it as victors justice.
Right. And both of those are oversimplifications that you kind of avoid the messiness, the politics that are all in the middle of it. And I think we need to understand that messiness. We need to understand what happened. We need to understand the compromises that were made by all of the countries at the table. And I actually find it kind of reassuring in this time that we're living in now to know that that the messiness and the politics and the Cold War politics, I mean, all of it, that in the middle of that great big mess, you can still come out with these ideals, right?
These ideals that carry forth. And even, you know, no matter what you think about international law and how useful it is to society, that's a whole nother debate. I think that what happens afterwards in the Soviet Union and in other states, these ideals provide something for even for dissidents to grab onto and to argue for rights. And I think those those it's important. I think it's just important to know that it's not this beautiful myth that we can wrap up, but that the complexity is is what I like about the story.
Well, let's talk a little bit more about complexity and how it played out in the trial itself. I mean, Irving, how did how did Soviet involvement not that I'm blaming the Anglo Saxon nations, the British and Americans and French role paradigms of judicial propriety. But how did how did the Soviet involvement make it felt as these trials were underway?
Well, a bunch of different kinds of ways. We first of all, I want to say that the Soviets contributed positively to the trials as well, right through through their eyewitness testimony, through the collection of the evidence, through the footage that Soviet filmmakers had shot during the war. So in the way that they were able to chronicle the war and the atrocities and contribute to the historical record in that way, that's very positive. Right. At the same time, the Soviets go in really thinking that it's going to be an open and shut case.
They go in. They have this history of show trials, the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, all of the members of the Soviet delegation that are sent to Nuremberg, the Soviet chief judge Young and a good chunk of the Soviet chief prosecutor, Roamin or Denko, the assistant prosecutors, they all had played major roles in the show trials. And so so that's a piece of this, too. And because the Soviets think that it's going to be open and shut, they try to do some things that kind of challenge the legitimacy of the trials at various points along the way.
I mean, one of those things is that the Katyn massacre, which was a major wartime atrocity. Right. That the Soviets had, in fact, committed the murder of tens of thousands of Polish officers who are prisoners of war that had become this political hot potato with the Soviets and and the Germans accusing each other of committing the crime. And the Soviets, they they think it's like this brilliant idea. They're going to include it in the indictment as a Nazi war crime.
And they do this in part because, well, there's so much evidence of other Nazi crimes. Right. So they think, who's going to question this? Who's going to challenge this? They do this in part because they don't really understand what the defense. Is going to look like that there's going to be like a full on defense, they do this in part because the prosecutors have agreed, even before the trials have started, that they're going to keep the tribunal focused on acces crimes.
They actually circulate lists of things that they want to keep out of the courtroom. These tablas and the Soviets put together this list and other countries do, too. Right. And so they don't really understand is that the prosecutors might feel this way, but the judges aren't on board with this. Right. And and the other thing is that once they get cottin and into the indictment as a Nazi crime, they don't think that the defense is going to be able to challenge it.
But the defense does challenge it. And the judges allow for the defendants to call witnesses and they allow the Soviets to call more witnesses on this as well. But that becomes a whole big thing in the Nuremberg courtroom. And there's a lot of anxiety among the British and among the Americans to sort of thought all along that this was a really bad idea to include it in the indictment, but went along with it because Denko, the Soviet chief prosecutor, was threatening to have to go back to Moscow and talk to Stalin and delay the whole trial.
So they they make the compromise and they go along with it. But this hangs over the trial. That hangs over the trial. The other thing, of course, the other big thing that hangs over the trial again, the and everyone no one is totally clean hands on all of this. But the Soviets, again, have the most to hide, especially when it came to the secret protocols of the Soviet German non-aggression pact of August 1939, that the non-aggression pact and then a secret protocol sort of led the way for the dual invasion of Poland and the division of Eastern Europe.
Right. And so that's that's a crime against peace. So here you have the Soviet jurist who has introduced this idea of a crime against peace. Right. And then the Soviets, of course, have a major crime against peace that they're trying to hide. And it just comes out right through through the course of the trials. And again, because the judges, the Western judges, right. There are four main judges, one from each country of the prosecution end and Chacko, the Soviet judges that voted again and again and again so that Ribbentrop and others are able to to introduce evidence of this.
And this hangs over the trials as well. So the Soviets have contributed in a positive way in terms of the legal framework, in a positive way in terms of some of the evidence that they provide. Right. But at the same time, they there are these things where everyone is now very anxious about what's going to be exposed and the legitimacy. And you see a fracturing of the countries of the prosecution as time goes on, in part because of the strain of these secrets and in part because of the Cold War coming into the courtroom as well.
So so that's that's part of it as well.
You went to the Soviet archives for this? Yes. You see, like I talk to students who are much older than you who remember those halcyon days. You get the Soviet archives, the 90s and look up all sorts of stuff about Stalin's purges. So how did you get access and what kind of documents and manuscripts did you see in them?
Yeah, so I did archival research in 2005 and 2006 for the book, and I worked in five Moscow archives and archives in other places too. But the Moscow archives were amazing because here there were I was really able to reconstruct the story of the child in part by looking at the secret documents in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in part by looking at secret documents in the party archives then and in the state archive, in part by looking at the archive in the ministry of I'm sorry, and the Academy of Sciences that had the legal questions and all the legal back and forth and in part in the archive of literature and art.
And really, this was the moment still in twenty five and twenty six. So this is again, like 15 years ago that I was really doing this research when archival access was still pretty good. And although I had to be persistent about getting access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was worth it. And again, these documents, archival documents that not only enabled me to tell the story of the Soviet involvement in the trial, but that I think, put the whole story of the trial in a different light, because once you have the Soviet story, then lots of other questions that one might have about what's really going on behind the scenes and questions that the Americans have, like why are the Soviets stalling during the Soviet prosecutor really have malaria, as they claim?
Because when they try to delay the trial, there are all kinds of things that you see what's going on behind the scenes are like, oh, OK. So that was what was happening on the Soviet end. The things Stalin had two secret commissions in Moscow that was operating from afar. Again, they thought this was going to be open and shut, that they were going to be able to control things. And these secret commissions, I was able to read the transcripts of their meetings and you see them just wrestling with all of the issues that are coming up in the course of the trials of the cottin question and the secret protocols and all of this and looking at correspondence that's sent back by informants.
That's the other thing. The Soviets have so many informants, so there's so much information that gets sent back in these just really juicy telegrams and these amazing reports. And you see from, for example, from a telegram that gets sent back from a Soviet diplomat who's acting as an informant in London at the time of the London conference. And that's how I learned that the Soviet chief prosecutor Roman would echo. He didn't know about the secret protocols. He didn't know about the what they called in that telegram, the secret history of Soviet Soviet German relations.
And so the Soviets, you know, they sent him blind, basically, and then they have to make a decision at a certain point about how much to tell him and went. Right. So those kinds of documents are just amazing. The other kinds of documents that I really love are just these letters, these reports of these journalists are sending back. And again, they're journalists, but they're also informants. And so they're writing these really lengthy letters.
And some of the things they're talking about are Nuremberg nightlife. They're talking about people drinking too much. They're talking about members of the Soviet delegation right there, kind of tattling on each other in some ways. But they're also talking about just how painful it is to sit in the courtroom and to have to listen to the testimony day after day after day. The Soviet writer of the Chevallier Vishnevskaya, who is a playwright and a journalist, and he's part of the Soviet delegation of journalists there.
He says that one of the other writers, Boris Playboy, is about to have a nervous breakdown. Right. And and so so all you get the sense of this and this next. He also is complaining about the Americans who he thinks are just not taking this seriously enough. The thing that really gets him is the American guards who are chewing gum in the courtroom. Right. That he's just furious about this. Like how could this be like while they're discussing these horrible atrocities in court?
So, again, I think these kinds of documents, they they let you get behind the scenes and tell the story of what's going on in the courtroom. But they also enabled me to to really tell a more vivid story of the trial and what's happening in the bars and at the private parties and all of that as well.
What did what effect, if any, did the two approaches or perhaps more than two? Because I'm sure a U.S., French and British approaches were different as well. What effect did that have on each other, on the various delegations, on judges? Was there a movement to a kind of a new hybridised form of of justice or or did it end up actually repelling this help to deepen the divisions at the end of the war, at the start of the Cold War?
Yeah, I know.
That's such a great question. And here we see that really from the start at the London conference, when the four representatives of the four powers are coming together to work out the details of the charter. And then when they're going to work out the details of the indictment, you know, on a very simple level, you have these different judicial systems, right, where the the US and Britain have a common law system. The French and the Soviets have the civil law system.
But the Soviets, of course, have that whole other thing going on with their show trial history, too. Right. So there's that. And what some of these differences mean is that the indictment, everyone has different ideas about what the indictment should look like, right. For the Soviets and the French, the indictment should include like all of the information. Right. All and for the Americans and the British, they want to introduce new documents and show things in the course of the trials.
And so there's compromises that are made as a result of that. But I think the Soviets didn't really understand what those compromises were going to mean in practice. And so I think that's one of the reasons that they find themselves continually surprised by the new evidence that gets introduced during the course of the trial. They have different ideas, again, about the role that the defense should play. This again here. The Soviets are the odd ones out because the French go along with the Americans and the British on this.
But the Soviets, they are just appalled, first of all, that the defense should be able to have former members of the Nazi party as attorneys. Right. That how could that be right. They're also appalled that the defendants can call witnesses. They think that the prosecution should have veto power over witnesses and they're not given that veto power. Right. They think that that they how could the defendants be allowed to take the stand in their own defense?
Right. That's propaganda, the Soviets say. Right. And that's shot down as well. So there are lots of these differences in terms of what the trial should look like that that get worked out. At the beginning and the Soviets lose a lot of those battles, which then kind of shapes what they're up against and part of why they're unprepared. The other thing, when there's so many interesting things here in terms of what each country wants to get out of the trials.
Right. All of the countries of the prosecution, all of that, the wartime allies. Right. They all want to use the trials in part to tell the story about the war to impart to and they want to shape that story about the war and they want to shape it in different ways. And, you know, the the charter and the indictment, there are there are different charges. Right. The three main class of charges are so it's war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace, crimes against peace being the charge of waging an aggressive war for the Soviets, crimes against peace.
That is the most important charge, right. For the British. It's really important to you. But the British are also very interested in prosecuting certain kinds of war crimes, especially crimes at sea. And that's one of the things that they really hold onto. For the French, it's crimes against humanity, what's originally called crimes against civilians and is later defined as crimes against humanity. And all of that factors in as well during the course of the trial in terms of, again, how the indictment is written up and what's presented in court and the kinds of narratives that are told.
But I would say that the biggest division of all is really between the Soviet Union and the United States. And that has to do with a lot of things. It has to do in part with Robert H. Jackson, who at the right from the start, once he comes on board as the US chief prosecutor and travels around Europe, he gets word of Soviet war crimes. He gets word of what the Soviets are still up to in Eastern Europe, and he is just appalled at having to cooperate with the Soviets at all.
Right. And he does. And all of these compromises are made about Cottin and about all of other things as well. But that's just it really it just influences things all the way along. And then once the defense case happens in March, which is coincidentally right. Also after Churchill gives his Iron Curtain speech in the United States. Right. That's at that point the Soviets, things really take a turn for them in ways that they are not expecting, where lots of evidence about their their own war crimes gets introduced into the courtroom and then the judges consistently allow it.
What is the lasting effect? Just just to just to zoom out a little bit on Nuremberg, you mentioned this kind of historiographical debate. Was it this amazing, enlightened moment in humanity when we started invented international law and everything, or was it just a shorthand victor's justice? Well, where are we on that at the moment, especially given what we know about the Soviet Union? What is a legacy? What should we think of on this anniversary of Nuremberg?
Oh, that's that's that's a hard. Yeah, no, that's a it's a it's a really big, hard question. Right. Because I want to be I want to be an optimist about it. And in some ways I really am. But at the same time as we see what's happening in the world and we see what's happening with international law and with the the ICC and I you know, we're in a moment now where I feel like we go in waves, right.
Of states being up for that kind of involvement and more concerned or less concerned about state sovereignty and feeling like perhaps they have more to hide or less to hide in terms of things. And I think we're in a moment now where we need we need to hold on. We need to hold on to the legacy of Nuremberg. I think we need to hold on to. And part of that legacy was the Nuremberg principles that came out of the trials. Part of that legacy was the genocide convention.
Part of that legacy was the Declaration on Human Rights. Right. I think those kinds of documents continue to give us hope in trying times because they lay out a way, they lay out a path, they provide a beacon like a kind of a moral compass that I think that as long as people continue to look towards that and to believe in that, that that there's still hope, which which is why I mean, I think, you know, one of the one of the dangers, quote unquote, in bringing in the Soviet story about the Nuremberg trials, someone asked me when I began working on this project, are you sure you really want to do this?
If you really want to bring in the role of the Soviets and Cottin and and the Soviets doctored evidence about cottin rights, do you really want to talk about that? Like, aren't you playing into the hands of those who just want to dismiss Nuremberg and International Law? And I and again, I think I think we need the full story. I think we need to know the messiness. We need to know the contradictions. We need to know that this wasn't this beautiful time that's been.
But that things are always complicated, things are always really messy, right, there are always politics involved, and I think the more that we kind of understand that these are human beings, right. Who came to the table, human beings in some ways, they agreed with their governments. In other ways they didn't. Some of them on the Soviet side, you know, who knows? I mean, I used to speculate a lot about our own training and who introduced these ideas.
Right. Did he hope in some way that this would change things in his country? Right. I don't know. There's no evidence. But, you know, kind of like when you work on something, you try to get into the heads of the people that you're studying. And I think, again, I think we have to hold on to international law. We have to hold on to these ideals even as even as we recognize it's a mess right now.
Well, I couldn't agree more. Thank you for giving us some hope.
And let's hope we do hold onto them from your book is called Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg and a new history of the International Tribunal after the Second World War on.
It's the anniversary this year and your book is out. So thank you very much indeed for joining us. Thanks so much for having me.
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