Two years ago, we remembered the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But last year’s lockdowns overshadowed the anniversary of Germany’s surrender (May 8, 1945). This year offers a golden opportunity to remember the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials. They teach the most important lesson to come out of World War II.
Allied troops spent the early days of May 1945 hunting down the most high-ranking Nazis. Unlike common soldiers who are simply disarmed and sent home at the end of a war, leaders of the Third Reich were imprisoned to face an international trial before judges from the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France and the United States. It was to be a first-of-its-kind event.
Ultimately, it was decided to indict 24 of the most prominent Nazis and to try them in Nuremberg, Germany – where the Nazi Party had drawn up the antisemitic Nuremberg laws 10 years earlier. The trial would be held in the Palace of Justice – a fitting venue if ever there was one.
The physical arrangements were easy compared to the legal considerations. Before they could indict Nazi criminals, they had to write the laws under which they would be charged. The whole world was watching, and all of posterity would be judging the fairness and justice of the Nuremberg trials.
Cannons of justice prohibit criminalizing actions after the fact (ex post facto). Yet, there was no international law that prohibited the actions of the Nazi government.
It is one thing to enact arbitrary laws like speed limits. It is quite another thing to recognize that some behaviors are criminal by their very nature – whether codified in writing or not.
People around the world knew, in the depths of their souls, that the systematic murder of citizens, prisoners and unfavored races was inherently evil. In fact, it would be evil to deny this fact. Even presidents and kings are accountable to this unwritten law.
This truth became known as Nuremberg Principle III: “The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law, acted as Head of State or responsible government official, does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.”
Principle IV, likewise, reads, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”
All told, there are seven Nuremberg Principles which have become the backbone of international law. But it should never be forgotten that these seven principles themselves rest on an even greater principle of justice: Just laws are not the creation of governments. Laws are only just if they reflect the truth written into nature itself.
This principle is known as “Natural Law.” Every man, woman and child knows it intuitively. There are certain rights and duties that are shared by every human being – whether they are written down or not. Likewise, there are actions which are forbidden to every human being. Societies and governments – no matter how powerful and no matter how widely approved – cannot make laws and policies that defy these natural laws.
The Nuremberg Trials provided a forum for the entire world to affirm Natural Law. Even the Soviet representatives had to agree. While the atheistic philosophy of Marxism, like Nazism, recognized no moral absolutes, the Soviets participated in the Nuremberg Trials nonetheless. The truth was just too obvious to ignore. In fact, this same Natural Law was the basis for the entire war effort of the Allied forces.
World War II was not primarily a territorial dispute. It was a war over the soul of the civilized world. Are governments authorized to make their own truth and morality? Or are they, themselves, subject to a higher authority? Are laws the arbitrary diktats of whoever can seize the levers of power? Or are laws authored by the God who created all things, and written into His creation?
America’s founders believed the latter. In the Declaration of Independence, they wrote that all civilized people are governed by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” America still proclaims this founding principle. Every piece of currency says, “In God we trust.”
There are voices in America today that want to remove these words from our currency. They are the same ones who deny the existence of Natural Law. By denying the existence of any authority higher than government, they are embracing the very same worldview that was condemned at Nuremberg.
The 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials gives us an occasion to remember that the claims of America’s founders are not outdated and marginalized. They remain to this day the foundation of truth and justice the world over.