The haunting German folk-song, “Wenn Wir Marschieren,”[1] serves as a cautionary point about collective German complicity in the Holocaust, and is used as a sobering motif throughout the film Judgement at Nuremberg. The song is repeatedly heard as a cry of German patriotism at bars and drunken late-night gatherings just two years after the conclusion of the war. This display of a quiet resurgence of nationalism is shown to be emblematic of the resentment towards the Allied partition of German territory, in what many see as a breach of their rightful sovereignty and a humiliation of German pride.[2] Director Stanley Kramer employs this subtle device, along with complex characters who present thrilling arguments at the Nuremberg tribunals, to demonstrate the broader notion of international responsibility for the atrocities of World War II, (which was anything but ‘cut-and-dry’) while weighing this against the necessity of American intervention in the aftermath of the war. While the thoughtful film establishes these moral dilemmas of a battered post-war-Europe on an emotional level through its fictionality, it also excels in its ability to present an accurate portrayal of the frustrations of the German population at the center of an emerging international division of power at the dawn of the Cold War. This predicates the assertion that the Nuremberg tribunals were instrumental in the development of the modern-day international court system, setting a precedent for the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and other standardized methods of dealing with genocide. The film effectively depicts (1) the arduous task of drawing the line of responsibility in acts of genocide and (2) the difficulty of serving justice in the midst of geo-political pressures, both of which have tremendous implications for international law. I will first provide a summary of key events within the film, followed by a reflective analysis of the film’s complex depiction of the Nuremburg Trials and its relevance to a new system of global governance.

The film embraces its fictional structure to make clear the moral implications of the aftermath of genocide. Judgement at Nuremberg focuses on the trial of four former Nazi jurists who are charged with crimes against humanity for their involvement in sentencing innocent people to their deaths – supposedly at the request of their despotic government. Dan Haywood, a District Attorney from the United States, is sent to Nuremberg to conduct the tribunal along with a Western Jury. While four defendants are on trial, the film’s primary focus rests on the Ernst Janning, a world renowned ‘man of the law’ who was well respected in the community prior to his promotion to Minister of Justice for the Third Reich. The American-led prosecution vehemently charges Janning with destroying “justice in the courtroom… calling [him] to account for murder, brutalities, and atrocities… responsible for the most devastating crimes in the history of mankind.”[3]

While guilt in this situation seems relatively clear-cut, the film’s portrayal of arguments from defense attorney, Hans Rolfe, casts a new perspective on the idea of responsibility in the tragedies of World War II. Rolfe affirms that if these jurists are held on trial, then the rest of Germany should be as well. He cites the role of a jurist in defence, exclaiming, “The judge does not make the laws, he simply carries out the laws of his country.”[4] Rolfe goes further to disregard whether the laws were right or wrong, explaining that if these jurists refused, they would be considered traitors of the state. Throughout the trial, he continues to deflect by comparing and contrasting acts of American responsibility: “I can show you a picture of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, do you think they have superior morality?”[5] All of this exists in the background of a devasted Germany, a nation which features a resentful population who deeply distrust American intervention in the legal proceedings of their former leaders.

Many novel questions arise in the first trial of its kind. How does one determine if a party was coerced or if it acted voluntarily to commit war-crimes? Is there a difference under the law between the two? At what point do indictments of German officials stop? Is there a precedent to implicate a German population who stood idly by? The hard truth to swallow is that there is no definite answer to these questions of responsibility; however, the international tribunal attempts to balance justice while maintaining that it is impossible to put all people of Germany on trial. The result is something of a compromise: the key figures implicated in the Holocaust are to be fairly judged for their great evils, but the eerie complacency of the common population may simply be left with the shame of involvement with such a regime and be forced to live with the economic and political consequences in the aftermath of the war. This form of ‘social justice’ is personified by Mrs. Bertholt, the widow of a Nazi general who was executed in a post-war trial. Forced to live with the shame of complicity and her husband’s wrongdoing, Mrs. Bertholt becomes depressed and angry, deflecting responsibility and pleading ignorance. She responds to the tribunals with fierce backlash, stating that her husband was “part of the revenge the victors take – it was political murder.”[6] One could extrapolate Mrs. Bertholt’s experience to an entire population in which a genocide took place, leading to the claim that it is impossible to provide complete justice for everyone’s wrongdoing. The film establishes this through its depiction of the trials; it sets a precedent for focused and targeted indictments while punishing the collective through social and economic alienation – a model of international legal institutions which has continued to this day.[7]   

Then there is the concern of establishing an impartial mediator for an international tribunal. As the first of its kind, the trials were held by Allied powers who occupied German territory after the fall of Berlin, and as such “had a tremendous impact on the development of international law.”[8] However, the problem, which the film highlights, is the Western pressures that come with the balance of serving justice to key players of the Nazi regime, while acting in a politically expedient way to obstruct this justice in order to garner support of a resentful German population at the onset of the Cold War. The trials presented an opportunity for “the US and British imperialists [to fix] their eyes on Germany as a potential ally in the struggle against communism.”[9] These political concerns pressured the tribunal to either hand out lighter sentences, or simply choose not to prosecute selected war criminals. The politics is highlighted in the film when an American Senator opines, “We need the help of the German people, and you do not get the help of the German people by sending their leaders to stiff prison sentences.”[10] While the presiding judge of the case resists the temptation to reduce a prison sentence for the sake of political gain, the compulsion exists nonetheless. Thus, the film makes clear that America is not a complete moral authority, although it may attempt to be. As a state with its own inherent objectives and biases, true impartiality is almost never the case. To a certain extent, politics taints the prospect of international justice.

The implication of America’s political pragmatism during the tribunal suggests the use of ‘Institutional Power’ to support national interests in the development of the Cold War. In this case, Western powers work through the institution of the tribunal in order to constrain or guide the actions of the German people for political gain.[11] While the German population and the Allied powers conducting the trials are socially distant from one another, the US possesses the ability to shape the loyalties of the resentful Germans through their actions in court as portrayed in the film. As a Western-led institution, the fate of Nazi criminals is directly controlled by Western powers, and thus the opinions of the German population can be implicitly guided by such decisions. Judgement at Nuremberg considers this power differential as the American prosecution contemplates the political consequences of their implementation of justice. Judge Haywood’s decision to sentence the defendants to life in prison rendered Americans “not very popular in Nuremburg,”[12] as the film effectively recognizes the pressure to employ institutional power to gain German support in the Cold War.

The aforementioned precedents of international law which the Nuremberg Trials established have broad implications for global governance. Issues of responsibility for mass genocide never before existed on such a large scale, nor did the pressures of political expediency to influence the popular opinion of a nation through a tribunal. Therefore, the trials “represent a paradigm shift in international law”[13] by addressing the novel questions which arose in a landmark case of legal history. Today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) operates on the same principles, focused in their prosecutions of targeted political leaders while striving for relative impartiality in their pursuits – relying on the cooperation of the international community to do so.[14]

However, many of the same shortcomings which are displayed in the film also appear within these contemporary hallmarks of international law. On the point of impartiality and political pressures, the ICC receives accusations of Western-centrism by focusing almost exclusively on prosecuting African war criminals.[15] Just as the Nuremburg trials received criticism for imposing American legal standards abroad, critics are wary of the largely Western-influenced ICC and its continued focus on nations of the global South. The film’s portrayal of American moral-exceptionalism in the trial is thus amplified to the international legal institutions of today. After all, has there ever been an ICC case making judgement on US conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan? The answer – a resounding no – is not completely surprising, as impartiality is contradicted by national interests. Therefore, these challenges which the Nuremburg trials attempt to overcome in the film resemble the complications which international legal institutions are currently facing.

To conclude, Judgement at Nuremberg provides a detailed account of the challenges which arose when determining the responsibility of key players of genocide and serving justice in the midst of political pressures at the Nuremberg trials. The film’s characterization of these questions in a landmark case consequently set a precedent for the institutions of international law present today. The film does not deny the inherent issues of the trials which were previously described. Rather, it embraces them in full capacity to demonstrate that international justice, although messy, complex and often contradictory, is necessary to uphold a standard of human rights and vital to secure lasting peace.

Works Cited

Burnett, Michael, and Raymond Duvall. Power and Global Governance. London: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Fichtelberg, Aaron. “Fair Trials and International Courts: A Critical Evaluation of the Nuremberg Legacy.” Criminal Justice Ethics Vol. 28. No. 1 (May 2009): 5-24.

Hatcher-Moore, Jessica. “Is the world’s highest court fit for purpose?” The Guardian. Accessed October 26, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/apr/05/international-criminal-court-fit-purpose.

Kramer, Stanley, dir. Judgement at Nuremberg. 1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004. DVD.

Sharma, D. C. “The Nuremberg Trials: Past and the Present.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 53 (1992): 586-592.


[1] Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[2] Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[3] “Prosecution Arguments,” Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[4] “Defence Arguments,” Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[5] “Defence Arguments,” Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[6] “Mrs. Bertholt Dinner Scene,” Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[7] Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[8] D. C. Sharma, “The Nuremberg Trials: Past and the Present,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 53 (1992): 587.

[9] Sharma., 589.

[10] “American Jury Meeting,” Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[11] Michael Burnett and Raymond Duvall, Power and Global Governance, (London: Cambridge UP, 2005), 15-16.

[12] “Aftermath of Trial,” Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961; Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2004), DVD.

[13] Aaron Fichtelberg, “Fair Trials and International Courts: A Critical Evaluation of the Nuremberg Legacy,” Criminal Justice Ethics Vol. 28. No. 1 (May 2009): 5.

[14] Fichtelberg., 8.

[15] Jessica Hatcher-Moore, “Is the world’s highest court fit for purpose?” The Guardian, accessed October 26, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/apr/05/international-criminal-court-fit-purpose