Judging Judgement at Nuremberg

By Alex Wittmann 

Judgement at Nuremberg is an important film when you consider the context of the time when it was released in 1961. The reception the film received at the Box office is very much indicative of how Nazi crimes were percieved in East Germany, West Germany, the United States, and how each side percived the way the allied judicary handled the crimes commited by Nazis at Nuremberg. The overarching point of the film was to show how screenwriter Abby Mann thought the trials should have played out for ex Nazis on trial. To show that perhaps a recognition of guilt could have allowed the possibility for forgiveness. The point of the movie was to show that there were West Germans who felt guilt. As we know from reading Diffraction of Guilt it is clear that the way former Nazis were punished in East Germany was very different. For example Zimmerman who had became a member of the Communist party in East Germany and had exhibited “model citizenry” he was still thrown in prison for life, compared to his boss in the West, a former SS officer, who only got 8 years in prison. Critical reception of the film Judgement at Nuremberg in East Germany said that with the movie’s admission of guilt in exchange for the possibility of forgiveness showed in their view that the US was complicit in abandoning the pursuit of Nazi criminals or at the very least, they were weak when it came to indicting former Nazis. The East Germans also argued that because of this, fascism was still ingrained in the west. Based on the fact that in reality, of the 39 Nazis put on trial, only around 9 were found guilty. This hints at some element of truth in the East German argument. The West German response to the film in a government perspective was critical. They lobbied against it being shown at the Cannes film festival in 1961. The concept of guilt was clearly not a reality the West Germans were willing to deal with in around that time. Even though the film suggested forgiveness could be achieved through admission of guilt on the part of the Nazis, this did not resonate well with theWest Germans. The reception of the film on West Germany’s end showed that the audience was clearly not willing to come to terms with thier Nazi past. There are questions asked by the reader after reading the article. How does the West German government reaction to the film highlight the hypocrisies that they held towards their own former Nazis as opposed to how they viewed  Former Nazis from the East? Does the film fit a narrative of who tried Nazis better, the East or the West.

Source Cited:

Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” and “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018) pp: 314- 336, 361-377.

Robert Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): 497-522.