"One of the most important things in thinking about how trials help deal with subsequent genocides [is] you need to grasp that painful fact that the perpetrators are ordinary human beings and that's who carried out these crimes."
Doris Bergen is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame where she studies twentieth-century German and Central European history, the Holocaust, and European women's history. She is the author of War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust and Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Professor Bergen serves on the Academic Advisory Board of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
"The time to help these people is before it becomes a genocide."
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of The Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. She is the author of two books about the Holocaust. Her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory led to the 2000 court case in which she defeated and discredited Holocaust denier David Irving. Professor Lipstadt's previous work, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945 examines the failure of the press in the United States to adequately report the German deportations and mass murders at the time they were occurring.
LIPSTADT: The truth is that after the first wave of prosecutions, the Cold War is beginning to emerge. We need Germany as an ally. So you have the first wave of prosecutions. And after that, most people get off scot-free.
MARWELL: I think it is important, though, to establish the context. The fact that the effort to prosecute Nazi war criminals lost its impetus was not because people wanted to benefit Nazi war criminals. It was a change in focus. A new enemy emerges on the scene.
LIPSTADT: But I think at the same time, you can't ignore the fact that this wouldn't have happened if the German populace hadn't gone along with it. They had hundreds of thousands of people taking part in this effort—whether it was a bureaucrat sitting in an office someplace in Germany figuring out a train schedule or figuring how much Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill the Jews in the gas chambers, was needed to be shipped to Auschwitz…. This person never physically killed anyone, but did it with a pen and a pencil.
MARWELL: I would say one of the major successes of the Nuremburg Trials was perhaps not its primary goal, the collection and preservation of the major records relating to the Nazi crimes.
You think about what a trial does. It takes evidence and subjects it to an adversarial procedure. Tests are done so that someday when someone says, "Well, how do we know that this document was real? Maybe someone made it up."
In trials that I was involved in, we got the handwriting and ink experts. We went to the archives and got samples of ink from 1944 in Poland.
Documents were tested. Document examiners testified. And we have now in the records of these trials evidence that has gone through a very complicated and well-honed process to determine what the truth is.
MARWELL: I think the most famous case is one that we investigated in 1983: Klaus Barbie, a [German] officer who operated in France and was involved in, among other things, the deportation of Jews.
Barbie, at the end of the war as an experienced intelligence officer, was recruited by American intelligence to help spy on the Soviets.
He was a valuable commodity for U.S. army intelligence. When the French requested his extradition in 1947, the American authorities, rather than turning him over to France, helped him get out of the country through the so-called ratline—to Italy and then to South America.
LIPSTADT: It's pretty cold blooded.
MARWELL: Again, context is important. The people who recruited him were given the new task of not fighting or prosecuting Nazi war criminals but combating a new enemy—the Soviets. And they used whatever means were available to them. From their point of view, this was a pretty effective thing to do.
LIPSTADT: I studied the American press from 1933 to 1945. We have reporters in Germany who got stuck there and weren't released until the spring of 42.
They were sending back stories many of which were [received] with: "This can't quite be true." "You're exaggerating." "Why are you writing this?" Or, the editors here took it and put the news in back pages in little articles.
I am thinking of an article in June of 1942 in the Chicago Tribune about a report that a million Jews had been murdered. It's on page six—13 lines at the bottom of a page next to an ad for Lava soap.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising [was] reported a few days after it begins. It is on the front page of The New York Times above the fold. The irony is The New York Times had three or four subsequent stories on the uprising [but] deeper and deeper and deeper into the paper.
The New York Times bent over backwards not to be thought of as a Jewish newspaper. So if it was news about Jews, it got buried.
BERGEN: Hitler very early on was quite aware of the importance of international public opinion. You think about the refusal of the world to take Jewish refugees even before the war began. [This] was something that Hitler knew—they don't want our Jewish problem, either.
LIPSTADT: He knows that the world doesn't really care. And the irony of the whole story is that the time to have rescued the people who were eventually murdered in the Holocaust was in the 1930s, before the Holocaust.
But I think with the killings, there's a difference between knowing and believing. It's still beyond belief.
That is one of the reasons why I think at the end of the war, one of the first groups General [Dwight David] Eisenhower invites to see the camps as they were in the days right after the war are editors and publishers. "Come," he says. "If ever this should be denied, you will have seen with your own eyes."
BERGEN: I want to add one thing about the importance of the Internet in this whole issue of Holocaust denial.
It's very shocking with my students how much access they have to denier literature through the Internet. And there, too, you have the problem of a lie that's repeated, repeated, and repeated, until it starts to seem legitimate.
LIPSTADT: In my book, I spent a few pages at most mentioning a man named David Irving, citing him as the world's leading Holocaust denier. He has a reputation as a right-wing conservative historian, but nonetheless, historian of World War II.
He sued me for libel in England where the laws favor him. I had to prove the truth. He didn't have to prove I lied. We were four years in preparation for the trial. The trial itself was twelve weeks long.
We won, slam dunk. He was decimated. The judge called him a denier, an antisemite, a racist, a liar, a manipulator, a falsifier. And then he appealed three times and lost on every appeal. But it took six years and a great effort to reach that point.