In the late 50s and early 60s director Stanley Kramer contributed a variety of films assessing in a critical way the major issues of the time. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), one of said films, is a fictionalised representation of the Judges’ Trial of 1947 for certifying various forms of inhumane treatment under the Nazi regime.

Spencer Tracy (pictured above) stars as Chief Judge Haywood who presides over the US trial of four German judges and prosecutors; most notably the erstwhile honourable Professor Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Tracy, the paradigm of middle American decency, plays the guileless, rather inexperienced and humble judge trying to evaluate how Janning and the other defendants could have committed such atrocities. US Army Captain Harrison Byers (William Shatner) is assigned to assist the judges.

Among those giving testimony is the terrified Irene Hoffmann, played by Judy Garland, an actor of enormous genius and also a tragic victim in her personal life (the casting apparently was not unintentional). Haywood, on a fact-finding mission to understand how a nation turned so bad, remains polite to all; especially so to Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), the widow of an executed general.

The defence lawyer Hans Rolfe is played incandescently by Maximilian Schell, poster boy of German cinema (though Austrian-Swiss). Rolfe’s defence of Janning shows how sterilisation of those perceived to be ‘defective’ was an idea of the time, not confined to the Nazis, and most awfully expressed by legendary US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes where he upheld the sterilisation of a young woman, Carrie Buck, as ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough’ (Buck v Bell 1927).

The film’s screenplay is by Abby Mann and it is set in Nuremberg in 1948. Many of the judges at the actual trial of the Nazi high command were simply unprepared for the level of awfulness they encountered. Historic flickering video footage of the war crimes court at Nuremberg gives the impression that the court is larger than it is but it is, in fact, quite small. Thus, the distances between the judges and the gallery of infamies that were people like Goering, condescending to the last, were a mere matter of ten feet. How to comprehend evil of this magnitude? How to put a confederacy of dunces or a consensus of idiocy on trial? More to the point, the film raises the disturbing question where judges become accomplices and handmaidens of the ‘banality of evil’ (to quote Hannah Arendt) even unintentionally. This question is indirectly raised by Arendt of her lover Martin Heidegger, also an ‘accomplice in evil’.

The little court in Nuremberg thus has much to relate to this day and age as does the film. It is an important reminder of a race to the bottom. One crucial thought is, of course, that the very citadels of European civilisation, the human rights charters, were set up after 1945 so that this might never happen again. To some extent this was also the impetus behind the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. How quaint this all sounds now as we are in a new dark age with the UK considering leaving or diminishing the ECHR. The European experiment is now on the brink of utter failure, and indeed consequential economic and social meltdown, while genocide and ethnic cleansing resurfaces elsewhere. I am massively perturbed at the rise of the far right in Europe including Ireland and have written about the same in Irish World.

The legal principle of universal jurisdiction attaches to a breach of an obligation erga omnes and that is an obligation owed to humanity. Initially the list comprised such matters as genocide, which ethnic cleansing broadly falls within; modern slavery and human trafficking were later added, and recent jurisprudence suggests violence against women also.

In these ever-shifting times, the film reminds us that lawyers should be vigilant and maintain a social conscience, a sense of nuance and moderation. And a sense of middle English decency, most recently evidenced by Mr Gary Lineker. And not be censored for speaking out.