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The 1961 film’s powerful message unexpectedly took on heightened significance when breaking news interrupted its televised premiere.

Battle Films: Judgment at Nuremberg

By Mark Grimsley
April 2018 • World War II Magazine

IT IS 9 P.M. EASTERN on the evening of Sunday, March 7, 1965. Forty-eight million Americans have tuned to ABC for the television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg, an acclaimed 1961 film directed by Stanley Kramer. The film has an all-star cast, among them Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Maximilian Schell (who won an Oscar for best actor). It deals with the 1948 trial of the Nazi judges who presided over cases brought before them under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which began the systematic oppression of German Jews. Judgment at Nuremberg is a forceful portrait of the evil that was Nazi Germany.

The broadcast has barely begun when ABC News breaks in for a special report. In Selma, Alabama, a violent clash has occurred between Alabama law enforcement officers and civil rights activists marching to Montgomery in support of a voting rights bill. The report segues to film footage that ABC News’ New York bureau has just received and hastily edited, aired with minimal narration.

Marchers are shown walking slowly, peacefully, toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A line of state troopers wearing gas masks blocks them; then the troopers, joined by deputies and a posse of civilians, attack the marchers with clubs and tear gas. The marchers run away, screaming in terror, pursued by a frenzied mob of police officers—mob is the only word to describe them—who smash the helpless activists with clubs. The distant voice of Sheriff Jim Clark can be discerned shouting, “Get those goddamned niggers! And get those goddamned white niggers!”

The special report concludes, and the network returns to Judgment at Nuremberg. For millions of viewers, the film is now no longer just about Nazi Germany.

The theme of Judgment at Nuremberg is complicity in evil. Among the judges being tried for collaboration with the Nazi regime is Ernst Janning (Lancaster), who before the war had been a world-renowned jurist. He refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the tribunal, headed by Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), and disdains to defend himself. He nonetheless has a brilliant advocate in defense counsel Hans Rolfe (Schell), who in defending Janning sees himself as defending the German people from being tarred with the guilt of the Nazi regime.

To make his case, Rolfe draws parallels between some of the Nuremberg Laws and those in other countries. One Nazi law decreed the sterilization of the mentally handicapped, but so did a Virginia law upheld by the Supreme Court. He shows that Rudolph Peterson (Montgomery Clift), a baker’s assistant sterilized by Nazi doctors, was indeed “feeble-minded” under the law and that Janning was therefore correct to sentence him to be sterilized. But Rolfe goes too far when he tries to badger a young woman, Irene Hoffmann-Wallner (Judy Garland), into admitting that at 16 she had had sex with an elderly Jew and family friend, Mr. Feldenstein. Under the Nuremberg Laws, sex between Aryans and non-Aryans carried the death penalty: Janning had sentenced Feldenstein to death and Hoffmann-Wallner to two years’ imprisonment for perjury. The woman insists to Rolfe that Feldenstein was simply a kind man who was like a father to her.

Janning suddenly recognizes that to defend him, Rolfe must recreate the evil of the Nazi courts. For the first time Janning speaks, telling Judge Hayward that he wishes to make a statement. In it he flatly confesses his complicity with the Nazi regime, to the point of finding Feldenstein guilty, for political reasons, when he knew that he was innocent. Complicity seemed part of the price to restore order and pride to Germany. (And the world, he points out, had not condemned Hitler, permitting him to take the Sudetenland and Austria.)

But his complicity and that of other Germans, Janning continues, had led not to restoration of German greatness, but, instead, to the horror of the Holocaust. He firmly denies Rolfe’s contention that the German people were unaware of the genocide. “Where were we when our neighbors were being dragged out in the middle of the night to Dachau? Where were we when every village in Germany has a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children being carried off to their extermination? Were we deaf? Dumb? Blind? Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”

For television audiences, the juxtaposition of the footage of Bloody Sunday and the message of Judgment at Nuremberg is shattering. In the days ahead, large demonstrations in favor of the Voting Rights Act take place across the country, and hundreds of clergy travel to Selma in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for aid. When activist Charles Morgan Jr. circulates among them, he is struck by a frequent refrain: “I was watching Judgment at Nuremberg and I just couldn’t stay away. I had to come.” 

This column was originally published in the April 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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