Jim Crow and the Nuremberg Trials

MIKE McGEE | 10/16/2017, 10:09 a.m.
As America pursued justice against the Nazis after their WWII surrender, the nation remained caught in its own tangled moral ...
An uncredited 1952 photo displayed at The Dallas Holocaust Museum depicts the segregation that was still common in Dallas and across America 7 years after U.S.-led Nazi war crimes trials. Mike McGee (photo 3)

Wealthy, older and socially established, a fight for the trials was something the appointee did not need to take on. Regardless, Pell was in Hungary at the point the Nazis invaded the country; in his view, making sure the Nuremberg trials occurred was the most important thing he could do in his life, Cox explained. Still, it was the Jim Crow system that threatened to derail the process.

“There’s this underlying thing here, that if we create international law that says racial persecution is an international crime on its own, it might cause the United States a problem.”

After prolonged foot-dragging in Washington, Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was the man who called out the nation’s moral quagmire. The professor paraphrased a memo Stimson wrote to FDR announcing, “I have great difficulty in finding any means by which we can convict those responsible for excesses committed within Germany. Such course would be without jurisdiction precisely the same way that any foreign court would be without jurisdiction to try those who are guilty of, or condone, lynching in our own country.”

“He finally puts it on paper,” Cox said. “The only way you’re going to have a trial and get them for the Holocaust is to find a way to say racial, religious, political persecution is a crime when the Nazis commit it, but not when the United States commit it – and by extension, other allied countries.”

Murray Bernays, an attorney in the War Department and himself a Jewish man, also recognized that there was a problem since minorities were treated differently in America. His solution was to charge German leaders with “aggressive war” – persecution being a smaller part of a larger war conspiracy – since other nations only entered the war after being attacked. The aggressive war prosecution became the method to bring the Nazis down while also maintaining America’s own segregated society.

Meanwhile, Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor for Nuremberg, is also significant for ensuring that the trial occurred. However, Jackson also helped hammer out a code that protected the United States for supporting a similar social environment to that of Nazi Germany, the professor expressed.

On Aug. 8, 1945 – in between the dropping of two atomic bombs over Japan that killed thousands of civilians – Allied powers signed a law code, The London Charter, that would bring war criminals to trial, as Americans grew impatient with how long the trial was taking to come about after German surrender. Photos and stories of concentration camps were becoming more widely known and the country wanted the Nazis to pay.

Jackson published an article around that time touting that the worst crime the Germans committed was “aggressive war,” rather than genocide, Cox noted.

“But he added in this article,” the historian read, “‘Another significant principle in this agreement is that racial or religious persecution by a government against its own people, under some circumstances, may rise to the magnitude of crimes against international society.’”

Cox paused to ponder, “There’s circumstances where that’s not a crime?”