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Conversation: Buckley on Nuremberg

Margaret Warner talks with author William F. Buckley about his newest book, "Nuremberg: The Reckoning."

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The book is "Nuremberg: The Reckoning." The author is William F. Buckley, the long-time host of PBS's 'Firing Line," founder of National Review Magazine, and author of more than a dozen previous novels and other works. This novel, part fiction, part history, centers on the celebrated war crimes trials of Nazi criminals in Nuremberg, Germany after World War II.

    The central character is a young German American, Sebastian Reinhardt, who flees from Germany with his mother as a boy, then returns as a 19-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant to serve as a translator in the trials. In the process he confronts his own family's role in this dark period of history. And welcome to the program, Mr. Buckley.

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    Thank you, nice to be here.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Welcome back. You obviously did a lot of research for this book. There are a lot of real characters in it, from Herman Gering and Albert Spehr, to the American judge, Judge Jackson. Why in the end did you write a book of fiction, why not just write an historical account of Nuremberg?

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    Well, there have been a lot of books written about the Nuremberg trials. But when I surveyed them, after being prompted too look into it, I thought, gee whiz, the resources of a fiction writer have been missing on this extraordinary episode. People talk about it all the time, but when they talk about the assassination of Kennedy and the assassination of Julius Caesar for that matter – what were these people up to, what was it that moved them to, how did they reflect this hypnotic charisma of Adolph Hitler?

    This I was able, I think, to capture in the interrogations of one of the defendants by our guy, interpreted by this 19-year-old German American who spoke German fluently. And he gets at this guy, his motivations, his actions, his direct, his insistence that to be Hitler's proper servant he had to think like Hitler. This is a very bright guy, 36 years old, ended up being in charge of security of Hitler's own detail. Now this kind of stuff — it is not all that easy to do, just reporting who was where and what was said at that time. So I think unless you want to say that Tolstoy shouldn't have written about the Napoleonic War as a novel, it's imprudent to suggest that that art form isn't useful.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, you have a scene early on when Sebastian gets to Germany and he moots his boss, that's Captain Carver, and Captain Carver says, are you looking for my law library? Well there's no library for what we're doing here. I mean, this really was, when you look back on it quite an original endeavor that the allies were trying to embark on.

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    This was an extraordinary aspect of this trial, because there had been no such laws. They were really attempted extrapolations of ethical impulses. So when they set out in London and set up this tribunal, they faced problems, one was that one of the judges himself, was guilty as a Nazi of the same kind of thing.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The Soviet judges you mean?

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    Right. Another one is the argument, well, your old man, he did it; Goering said, well, you people decided to have genocide against the Indians, so we did it against the Jews, so what — not permitted. Plus also they didn't permit the so-called Nuremberg defense: I was told to do it, therefore, what option did I have.

    So facing that, you ask yourself the question, was there a residual impact of the Nuremberg trials which affects us today. I think it's not easy to say that there was one explicitly in legal terms. But there is one that causes world leaders to think — if I don't win I might be strung up. And I assume that there's a certain deterrence, because most people don't want to be strung up.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It was the first attempt, was it's not, to say there are certain universal values of basic humanity, and that if you abuse your power, you can be punished as a criminal, not just as a defeated military leader but as a criminal by the civilized world?

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    That's right. They wanted to assert there were such things as a war of aggression, and inhuman conduct. Now, they had a rough time with that, because, for instance, they had Chester Nimitz, who man testified that he ordered his submarines to shoot Japanese if, who had been torpedoed, if to pause to help them out, endangered their own mission.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The American admiral.

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    That's right. So all those complexities affected fine legal evaluations of what the Nazis had done, but there was no precedent for taking 600 people into a barn and just burning it because it was convenient to the kind of atrocities that were done — there was remarkable tension for keeping records of it — haunted them. And the entire day that was spent showing a 6-hour film, a composite what was had been captured, was shocking even to the Nazis. They were face to face there as I think they are in my novel, with what they did.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It seems to me there's a tension in this novel which you bring out through the central villain character, this Curt Amadeus, the head of the camp, about whether this trial was really legitimate or whether these trials were show trials, sort of we'll give you a fair trial and then give you a hanging. Do you think this was a legitimate exercise?

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    Yes, I do. And they didn't hang everybody. There were 13 hangings, and three or four people let off and some people with sentences of 20 years, some people ten years old. An attempt to discriminate was made, an extremely important attempt. The prosecution tried to say anybody who was an important Nazi is ipso facto a criminal. They worked on that about for two months, didn't carry it. It would have made it much easier to prosecute if they could say, well, he's a Colonel Nazi, therefore he's a criminal.

    They failed at several of these levels. In fact, they failed at any level – deliberation — three people had to agree before one was hanged, three out of four judges. Three people had to degree to let somebody out completely. So there was a balance, a negotiated aspect of this which was very novel. But the attempt to consolidate the idea of international war crimes was novel and I think marginally effective. There were certain attachments in the Nuremberg process which I think the novel brings out readably — that places it in history not only as remarkable astonishment, accomplishment, but also as a fragile attempt at the codification of international war laws.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Would you say, though, that still remains a point of tension, internationally, about whether the international community has the right to sit in judgment of the leader of another nation?

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    Well, the answer is yes, because there's always a concern of a parochialization of the law. Now, in the case of Milosevic, who is being tried now, let alone the defendants we're talking about, it was agreed that the scale of the horrors that they were responsible for could not be excused. So to the extent that the law didn't adapt itself to making it possible to prosecute him, the law had to be put to one side and that's what happened.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    William F. Buckley, thank you.

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY:

    Nice to see you.