Professor Francine Hirsch, UW-Madison

Mortenson Lecture: Professor Francine Hirsch, UW-Madison

"The Nuremburg trials and the Making of the USSR as an International Power"

Free for members; $10 for non-members.

Professor Hirsch discusses how the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 became one of the first fronts of postwar competition between the USSR and its former wartime allies—a competition in which the USSR did not fare well. The United States proved far more adept at shaping the trials and using them to advance a postwar agenda.  By evaluating the USSR’s contributions, Hirsch suggests that although Nuremberg was a failure for the USSR, it taught the Soviets important lessons that shaped their development as an international power.

–Robert Schnieder, Editor of the American Historical Review

Ms. Alice Mortenson is a Minneapolis resident and University of Wisconsin—Madison alumnus in history who has endowed a chair in Russian history at her alma mater since 2005. TMORA applauds Ms. Mortenson’s generous support of this lecture series in the service of the museum’s educational mission.

Some Excerpts from Professor Francine Hirsch’s work:

Recent years have seen a number of highly publicized international war crimes trials, with figures such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein being tried for crimes against humanity. Frustrated by the flaws in these proceedings, commentators have hearkened back nostalgically to the precedents and lessons of Nuremberg, which in the United States has achieved an almost mythical status. Yet my research in the Soviet archives suggests that the reality of Nuremberg was far more complicated than the myth—and that the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in 1945-46 were themselves riddled with irregularities, frustrations, and some stunning failures. Moreover, it also suggests that a number of longstanding assumptions about Nuremberg, from the idea that the IMT marked a moment of international cooperation outside of the Cold War to the depiction of the trials’ legal innovations as Western inventions, are overstated or flat-out wrong. In holding up Nuremberg as a great postwar triumph of liberal values and “principled judgment,” and as a birthplace of modern human rights, we may be missing important opportunities to learn from the real precedents and lessons of the past. Indeed, while the involvement of the U.S. and the Western European powers in the Nuremberg Trials has been studied in great detail, little work has been done on the role of the Soviets in postwar international war-crimes tribunals. My talk will draw from my book project about the Nuremberg Trials, telling an “unknown story” about the role of the Soviets in the IMT. It will focus particular attention on the behind-the-scenes activities of the USSR’s secret Commission for Directing the Nuremberg Trials—looking at Soviet efforts to use the IMT to craft a narrative about the Second World War and to influence the shape of the postwar order.

The Nuremberg Trials of November 1945 to October 1946 are still seen through the distorting lens of the Cold War. Nuremberg was a foundational event of the postwar era, generating numerous retellings in memoirs, monographs, and films. The classic account of the trials is an Anglo-American tale of liberal triumph in which the high-minded U.S. chief prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, along with representatives of the other Western powers, put the desire for vengeance aside and gave the Nazis a fair trial before the law—marking one of “the law’s first great efforts to submit mass atrocity to principled judgment” and ushering in a new era of international human rights. This narrative became established in the West during the long decades of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, when Soviet materials relating to the trials, and to postwar diplomatic relations in general, were off limits in the Soviet archives.

For politicians and historians who helped create the classic narrative of Nuremberg, the role of the Soviets in the International Military Tribunal (IMT) was, and remains, an awkward fact. Most English-language accounts describe Soviet participation in Nuremberg as “the Achilles’ heel” of the trials: regrettable but unavoidable, a Faustian bargain that the U.S. and Britain made in order to bring closure to the war and bring the Nazis to justice. Popular works that have shaped conventional wisdom about the trials give little attention to the substantive role that the Soviets had in all aspects of the IMT. Those commentators who do focus on Soviet participation often do so in order to highlight the flaws of such tribunals and to make a point about “victors’ justice,” in the most extreme cases as part of a larger project to discredit the historical record of the Holocaust.

Even with the Cold War long over, the classic narrative of Nuremberg has proven resilient. The few post-1989 studies that challenge our assumptions about the IMT and its meaning, almost all of which are from Russia, have received little attention in the United States. Meanwhile, new evidence from the former Soviet archives, much of which has just become available to researchers, suggests that there is still a great deal that we need to understand about what happened at Nuremberg and in its wake. This evidence shows how the IMT functioned as a medium for postwar cooperation among states with different visions and goals—and also how it became the battleground for an intense political and ideological struggle among those same states about the meaning of World War II and the shape of the new international order. Given the prevalence of international tribunals in our current political landscape and the frequent invocations of “the Nuremberg model,” it would seem that attaining a more complete picture of Nuremberg, and of the behind-the-scenes politics of the trials in particular, is a matter of more than just academic interest.

A new narrative of Nuremberg that includes a full accounting of the role of the Soviets contains numerous twists and turns—and more than a few surprises. First, there is compelling evidence that the Soviet Union made significant contributions to the legal framework of the IMT and also to a new postwar vision of international law. It did so despite the fact that Soviet domestic legal practices contradicted Western liberal principles of the law.

Furthermore, making the USSR’s contributions to the jurisprudence of the IMT all the more striking, it is clear that there were direct continuities in personnel and objectives linking the Soviet delegation at the Nuremberg Trials to Stalin’s notorious Moscow Trials of 1936–1938. The Russian archival record leaves no question that the Soviet regime and its secret Commission for Directing the Nuremberg Trials envisioned Nuremberg as a “show trial”—that is, as an exercise in didactic legalism—and made a significant effort to control the Soviet legal team and the course of the trials.

Yet despite these intentions, and despite the major contributions that the Soviet participants made to the actual trial, Nuremberg turned into an embarrassment for the USSR. In Nuremberg we see not just “intimations of the coming Cold War” but in fact one of the Cold War’s first major battles, taking place at a critical moment when the postwar relationship between the United States and the USSR was still unformed and before the USSR had achieved the status of an international superpower. The Soviets did not fare well in this contest. Indeed, it was the U.S. that seized control of the IMT and made Nuremberg its own. The IMT became a devastating propaganda failure for the Soviet “propaganda state.” It exposed Soviet inadequacies before the world and ultimately shaped Soviet leaders’ attitudes toward the postwar order.

—Professor Francine Hirsch

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