If we want Putin brought to justice, Nuremberg has much to teach us

John Kampfner

Dictators like Vladimir Putin and populists such as Donald Trump have had a good last couple of weeks. A leak of intelligence documents has exposed highly classified US military secrets, damaging relations with key allies and revealing weaknesses in Ukraine’s defences. And the arraignment of the former US president on hush-money charges may well have boosted his re-election chances. So there are more reasons than usual to be fearful about the resilience of liberal democracy.
Just as confidence may be ebbing, it is salutary to visit Nuremberg to remember what the fight is all about. This city was Hitler’s true home. It was where the Nazis held their annual rallies and promulgated their race laws, differentiating the purity of Aryan blood from that of the Jews, setting in train the Holocaust. Nuremberg also embodies something good. It was in its Palace of Justice that the elite of the Third Reich were prosecuted and sentenced after a court case lasting nearly a year, setting a benchmark for rigour and fairness in dealing with the vanquished of war.
Four victorious allies – the US, UK, France and the Soviet Union – chose this Bavarian city for several reasons. Some were pragmatic: the courthouse was large; it had not been badly bombed, and the facilities included cells from which the accused could be escorted via a sealed walkway directly into the court. But mostly because of the symbolism. Of all places, it had to be Nuremberg. The wood-panelled Courtroom 600 stands as a monument not just to shame but to a remarkable moment when the world came together to prosecute evil – not bombastically, but methodically, day after day, with banks of stenographers recording every word, and interpreters translating between four languages. All the while, Hermann Göring and other Nazis sat in the dock, smirking or staring menacingly straight ahead, as petrified and traumatised witnesses gave evidence against them. To sit in what was the public gallery and look at the room sends shivers down the spine.
Translate all of this to the present day: imagine, for just one moment, Putin in the dock, but at the modern-day location, the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague. On 17 March, a few days before I visited Nuremberg, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president. The Kremlin responded by declaring that any attempt to comply with the ICC would be considered an act of war. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, retorted that her country would hand him over.
That is, of course, far easier to say than to do. Nevertheless, only a small number of countries have been as explicit as the Germans in making their (theoretical) intentions clear. The ICC indictment limits which destinations Putin can visit in the future. Would he, for example, risk a trip to Johannesburg in August for a Brics summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? He might well, as the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is being ostentatiously sympathetic to the Kremlin. Putin might even venture to Hungary, whose authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is defiantly friendly. Other countries are equivocating. The ICC is pushing ahead with tenacity, yet its credibility is hardly enhanced by the position of the US. The Americans helped set up the organisation in 1998, only to decline to join it, objecting to the notion of their own politicians or military personnel being tried – shock horror – by judges from other countries. That hostility, inevitably, reached a peak during the Trump era. In September 2020, the state department issued an executive order imposing sanctions on two senior ICC officials after the court announced it was investigating the US and Israel for potential war crimes in Afghanistan and the West Bank respectively. Those sanctions were lifted seven months later by the Biden administration, although it continues to argue that foreign courts have no jurisdiction.
It is salutary to recall the role the Americans and Russians played at Nuremberg. An exhibition attached to the courtroom quotes the opening submission by the lead US judge Robert H Jackson: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow.” The “detachment and intellectual integrity” of the court, Jackson added, “will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspirations to do justice”. It is painful to juxtapose the words uttered then with now, with the blithe indifference of so many countries, including the US and UK, to the flouting, or threatened flouting, of international law. As for the Russian government, it continued to work closely with the Nuremberg Memorial Centre up to and shortly beyond the trials’ 75th anniversary commemorations in November 2020. Contact was then severed by both sides, officials tell me, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
With its cobbled streets, winding waterways and gabled houses, Nuremberg is an ancient, beautiful and terrible city. Its history haunts you at every turn. It has rebuilt physically and psychologically since the war, learning how to process its past, rebranding itself a city of human rights, and holding regular forums on war and criminality. While avoiding moral equivalence, it seeks to draw a straight line between the Nazis and the crimes of subsequent decades, taking in Rwanda, Srebrenica and other places that have seen horror. The city authorities have developed close links with officials in The Hague. They call this the Nuremberg idea. As I wander past the city’s pretty pavement cafes, I ask myself whether this makes people feel better without making a discernible difference. The Americans are, after all, going to continue equivocating and evading. Meanwhile, Putin is unlikely to have his Nuremberg moment. Dictators around the world are sitting pretty. Perhaps the argument should be framed the other way round. The Nuremberg trials were by no means perfect. The prosecution of war crimes since has been inconsistently applied, to put it mildly. Yet the Nuremberg idea is still there, a flame flickering, if weakly, even as others seek to extinguish it.
The Guardian