It’s Stu Levitan’s birthday, his 68th birthday to be precise, so he’s taking the day off and dialing up an encore presentation of a conversation from this past February with UW Prof. Francine Hirsch, the author of Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal After World War II. Published by Oxford University Press, it is an award-winning reappraisal of the trial that became the pivot point between World War 2 and the Cold War.
On November 20 1945, the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union opened the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, putting on trial 22 Nazi leaders and seven organizations, charged with conspiring in a crime against peace, planning and waging wars of aggression, participating in war crimes, and committing crimes against humanity.
On September 30 and October 1, 1946 judges from the four countries announced their verdicts – 12 of the accused, including Reich Marshall Herman Goering and German foreign minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, were sentenced to death by hanging, seven received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, and three were acquitted. Four organizations -the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, the Secret State Police, or Gestapo, the Protective Squadron or SS, and the Security Service, or SD, were found criminal – but only for what they did after the start of the war on September 1, 1939; three organizations – the Reich Cabinet, the Storm Troopers, or SA and the German General Staff and High Command – were found not guilty.
In the collective memory of the west, these Nuremberg Trials – the only 4-power trials – were first and foremost an American exercise of finding truth and dispensing justice. Chief US prosecutor Robert H Jackson, on leave from his post as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was both star and director, with able prosecutors from Great Britain in friendly support. The French were only marginally relevant, and the Soviets … well, they were at best an annoyance and at worst an embarrassment whose obvious and overwhelming conflicts threatened the very legitimacy of the entire exercise.
But what if that Nuremberg Moment was just a myth, and our memory is not of the whole story? What if, notwithstanding their own dealings with Hitler and their own war crimes, the Soviets were actually essential to the Tribunal happening at all? What if it was a Soviet lawyer who came up with the fundamental breakthrough in international law underpinning the entire trial?
Those are the questions that Prof. Hirsch asks and answers brilliantly in this landmark account, for which she has already received the American Society for International Law’s 2021 Certificate of Merit for a preeminent contribution to creative scholarship.
Fran Hirsch is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison so it is no surprise that she has produced such a work of scholarship and style. Her first book, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) received awards from the American Historical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, and the Council For European Studies. She also scores a very healthy 4.4 rating on Rate My Professor. It is a pleasure to welcome to Madison BookBeat, Prof. Fran Hirsch.