Nov. 27, 1995
Vol. 15, No. 6

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    Trial at Nuremberg: Meltzer recounts role in prosecution of Nazis

    A large manila folder, graying and rough around the edges, pokes out of a box filled with books and papers on Bernard Meltzer's desk at the Law School. Stamped "International Military Tribunal" in bold letters, the otherwise ordinary folder is one of the few clues in Meltzer's office to his role in one of the most extraordinary trials of the century -- the trial at Nuremberg, which began 50 years ago this month.

    Meltzer, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Law School and a University faculty member since 1946, was one of 24 Americans on the international team that presented evidence against nearly two dozen German officials at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, for their role in aggressive war and war crimes during World War II. At 31, Meltzer was the youngest attorney to present a case to the tribunal.

    "One had a sense that this was part of the grand closure of the war," Meltzer said. It was a painful closure, filled with hundreds of papers and books that documented millions of deaths, recorded human experiments, logged gold fillings taken from teeth and recounted horror after horror in careful script. The records included two "totenbuchs," or death books, which listed about 300 deaths at the Maulthausen camp.

    "The deaths were recorded as having occurred in alphabetical order, at brief intervals of time, and in each case because of heart disease," Meltzer said. "I can still recall the hush in the courtroom when those books were put into evidence."

    Although the attorneys focused on the job at hand -- prosecuting the defendants, who included Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess -- the evidence presented during the nearly yearlong trial took its toll. "We just were resilient," he said.

    Meltzer recounted his experiences at Nuremberg during a presentation at the Law School on Nov. 21 -- 50 years to the day after the opening statement at the trial by Justice Robert Jackson, chief of the U.S. prosecution at Nuremberg, who was on leave from the U.S. Supreme Court.

    A 1935 graduate of the College and a 1937 graduate of the Law School, Meltzer was asked to help with the prosecution at the Nuremberg trial by Frank Shea, who had been an assistant attorney general when Jackson was attorney general and who knew Meltzer during Meltzer's stint with the government in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

    "So off I went in July 1945," Meltzer said. Shea was particularly interested in the economic case, and that became Meltzer's primary area of investigation. He looked at those who had financed Germany's rearmament and their knowledge of the aggressive reasons for rearmament. He also was concerned with the Nazi's use of slave labor and pillaging and plundering in occupied territories.

    However, about 10 days before the concentration camp case was to be presented at the trial, Meltzer was brought in to complete the preparations. In a matter of days, he was thrown into the documents and testimony of the death camps, he said.

    "From a lawyer's standpoint, it was a dream. From a humanist standpoint, it was a nightmare," Meltzer said.

    Much of Meltzer's work in the prosecution concerned the case against those who had helped finance the German rearmament. In the process before the trial, he interrogated Goering, who had been leader of the German economy under Hitler as well as founder and head of the Gestapo.

    "Of the defendants I met face to face, I found Goering the most interesting and the most diabolical," Meltzer said. "Goering was completely unrepentant and gloried in his role as second to Hitler and the first of the named defendants. He assumed responsibility [at the trial] for defending the Nazi regime, and he attacked the laws of war as obsolete."

    Meltzer presented the case against Walter Funk, one of Hitler's personal economic advisers. Funk was minister of economics, plenipotentiary general for the war and president of the Reichsbank.

    Meltzer said evidence showed that while Funk was head of the Reichsbank in January 1939, it had become the storehouse for gold fillings and other valuables taken from concentration camp victims.

    "He wept when confronted with this evidence before the trial, but claimed that he did not know of that ghoulish traffic," Meltzer said.

    Ultimately, Funk was convicted of three counts and sentenced to life imprisonment.

    A controversial aspect of Nuremberg, Meltzer said, was whether the defendants should be tried at all.

    "For a time, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had flirted with the idea of executive punishment," Meltzer said. "The British, who had urged that procedure, proposed that the Allies identify, let us say, 25 or 100 leading Germans whose offenses had been serious and obvious and shoot them, out of hand.

    "This procedure, so like the arbitrary executions by Hitler and Stalin, was wisely abandoned in favor of the trial and the hearing ultimately granted to the defendants."

    In fact, three of the Nuremberg defendants were acquitted.

    "It would not be an enviable job to explain at this anniversary the summary execution of individuals chosen by a multinational group, a group that included Stalin," Meltzer said.

    The trial also provided a record of Nazi crimes.

    "The evidence of the Holocaust was so strong that I doubt that in 1945 anyone foresaw the so-called 'Auschwitz lie' -- the recent denials that the Holocaust happened," Meltzer said. "But the trial record has surely served as a corrective to such fantastic revisionism."

    In 1995, Meltzer is watching closely as other, current tales of war crimes are told.

    "Nuremberg is made relevant -- alas, too relevant -- by the ongoing infamies of our own times, such as 'ethnic cleansing' and slaughter in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda," Meltzer said. "The memory of Nuremberg is also evoked by the rise of neo-Nazism in Germany and the U.S., as well as by the preachers of bigotry, hate and separatism everywhere.

    "What drives people to commit such horrors -- that is the great mystery," Meltzer said. "It is obviously easier to understand the deliberate killing of one person than the extermination of 500,000."

    -- Catherine Behan