November 20, 1995, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials, which were construed by many at the time as an auspicious sign of world healing after the Second World War. The trials forged a model after which subsequent international enforcement of justice might be patterned. Indeed, to many, the trials indicated that transgressions against basic, universal human values would no longer be tolerated by the international community, and that a mechanism was now in place by which to hold people accountable for "crimes against humanity."
In "Nuremberg--A Fair Trial? Dangerous Precedent" (Atlantic, April, 1946) Judge Charles E. Wyzanski Jr. voiced concerns about the hazards of attempting to administer international justice in a vacuum, without the benefit of guiding precedent, especially given that the judiciary panel was to be composed not of disinterested legal experts, but of political leaders from the very countries against which the defendants were said to have committed their crimes. Wyzanski warned that if the panel succumbed to (justifiable) feelings of outrage, and indulged an urge to punish without granting the defendants a fair trial, it would establish a dangerous precedent for war crimes retribution.
Seven months later, however, after the trial had run its course, Wyzanski explained in "Nuremberg in Retrospect" (Atlantic, December, 1946), that the exemplary manner in which the trial had been conducted had dispelled his skepticism about the feasibility of forging an international legal system: "Judged as a court trial," he wrote, "the Nuremberg proceedings were a model of forensic fairness....But the outstanding accomplishment of the trial...is that it has crystallized the concept that there already is inherent in the international community a machinery both for the expression of international criminal law and for its enforcement."
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Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."
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