Now Online, Recordings of the Nuremberg Trials Make Evil Sound Dull

January 21, 2021 | Edward Rothstein
About the author: Edward Rothstein is Critic at Large at the Wall Street Journal. His essays in Mosaic include “The Problem with Jewish Museums” and “Jerusalem Syndrome at the Met.”

Thanks to a cooperative effort by several institutions, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has made the audio recordings of the trials of 24 of the highest-ranking members of the Third Reich available online in their entirety. Held in Nuremberg from November 1945 to October 1946, the hearings themselves lasted for a total of 775 hours—documented on 1,942 gramophone discs that have now been digitized. Edward Rothstein writes:

[W]hat is heard, even now, seems remarkable: a rough first draft of judgment, beginning just five months after the war with Germany ended and unfolding over nearly a year as its arbiters strained to fit minimal forms of existing law to maximal forms of moral degradation.

Stalin expected Nuremberg to be a show trial, like those he staged to deadly effect between 1936 and 1938; he propelled their veterans into important Nuremberg roles. So the Soviet participants can seem disoriented by cross-examination and defense. And when they try to prevent the defendants from bringing up the Hitler-Stalin pact or Soviet atrocities, disputes can verge on farce (and then perhaps, given Stalin’s displeasure, become tragedy: one of the Soviet prosecutors was almost certainly murdered midtrial). The other Allies try to get it right, but often get bogged down in procedure, multilingual delays, and repetition.

It is only in listening to large swaths of this trial that I became able to finally give some credit to Hannah Arendt’s notion, developed after watching Adolf Eichmann’s Israeli trial, that he and his fellow Nazis embodied the “banality of evil.” She saw the banality as a reflection of Nazi evil itself, as if it were a kind of bourgeois malfeasance—dull men doing devilish work without thinking. But after being immersed in sections of these 775 hours of hearings, I think banality was more a reflection of what she was witnessing. A trial can make evil seem dull because it makes it ordinary, showing how it becomes fact, disclosing details, memories, documents (Nuremberg’s produced 269,093 pages). The judging of evil is often banal, but . . . evil in itself is not.

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