Three East European-born Jewish lawyers present at the Nuremberg trials did much to shape the trials’ lasting impact on our understanding of both the Holocaust and international law, although their roles in the actual proceedings were peripheral. Each had his own theory of the trials’ significance, as Michael Marrus explains:
[Jacob] Robinson’s, [Hersch] Lauterpacht’s, and [Raphael] Lemkin’s work at Nuremberg may be understood as three different efforts to contend with the inadequacies of the interwar mechanisms for the protection of minorities on which all three had worked and that all three had supported in one way or the other during an early part of their careers. Robinson’s answer was to tie Jewish fortunes to the story of the Jewish catastrophe, seemingly in a belief that the moral effect of knowledge of the Holocaust, energetically promoted by the United States, would help achieve justice for a people sorely wronged.
Less bound to specifically Jewish perspectives, Lauterpacht and Lemkin looked to the trial for new structures of international law. Consistent with his longstanding critique of national sovereignty, Lauterpacht’s great cause was international human rights, defining their juridical and institutional platforms, and seeking a way forward for their acceptance internationally. For him, Nuremberg’s insistence on the accountability of German war criminals was an important step on a path to achieving this goal.
And Lemkin, for his part, saw in the cause of genocide the most fitting response to the global catastrophe. Consumed, not to say obsessed by his project, he failed to appreciate much of what the trial had accomplished. Human rights were well and good, he thought, but as he protested a decade after Nuremberg, they “are concerned with different levels of existence, while genocide deals with nonexistence.” Notwithstanding these differences, each of the émigrés would have agreed that the postwar world order had to address, as a matter of priority, the most vulnerable.