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Editorial | Island Voices

Unchecked power led to Nazi atrocities

    Siegfried Ramler observed the effects of unchecked government power as an interpreter/linguist at the Nuremberg trials. Here, Ramler sits in the middle row, second from right, during the proceedings.

This past November, for the first time in 65 years, I walked into Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, the scene of the historic war crimes trials of the Nazi leaders of the defeated German Reich. As a young simultaneous interpreter for the main international trial from 1945 to 1946 and 12 subsequent proceedings over four years, I had spent many days in the Nuremberg interpreters’ booth.

The courtroom is now different, as is the city that surrounds it. Gone are the piles of rubble that littered the cityscape in 1946. Nuremberg is now a vibrant city, part and parcel of the united, dynamic Germany that plays a leading role in the European Union, eloquent testimony to the ability of a people to rebuild civilization from the ashes.

The courtroom has been reconfigured, but the main areas are identifiable: judges’ bench, defendants dock, defense counsel rows, prosecution desks, interpreters cabins, witness seat and spectator spaces.

The room still resonated with the voices of the participants, an instant flashback to that earlier time of tragedy and reckoning.

As I gave a talk from the witness rostrum in the court — and in other talks to students and others during a two-week visit marking the German publication of my memoir, "Nuremberg and Beyond" — I was struck that the audiences’ interest in the trials was also different from my own. For them the Nazi period and the Nuremberg trials are historical events of the far past. I took it as especially important to engage the students in dialog about an event in German history that also holds lessons of global significance.

The strongest curiosity focused on my impressions of the accused in the defendants’ dock, their personalities and their reactions to incriminating testimonies and documents. I was also frequently asked about my personal feelings about the Nazi atrocities, about the persecution and forced eviction of my family, and how this experience influenced my attitude and work at the Nuremberg trials.

At the time, caught up in the enormous technical challenges presented by a multilingual trial, I was not preoccupied with such questions. While I was not insensitive to the litany of crimes, I was primarily concerned with my professional obligation as a courtroom linguist and interpreter. However, my personal perspective has also evolved over the subsequent years. Now, with the benefit of greater reflection, I have a broader picture of the proceedings, their significance and their legacy.

An undercurrent running through the trials raised a deeper question: How was it possible for such atrocities to be committed in Germany, a nation with a rich cultural tradition in literature, science and the arts, a pillar of European civilization? I respond to this question by focusing on its universal significance.

When checks on governmental power and control do not exist, when a dictatorship distorts and nullifies existing law, when the achievement of a desired end justifies any means to obtain it, when genocide becomes government policy and when the world community fails to react, the result leads to the abyss into which Germany descended during the Nazi period.

It is this lesson — the fundamental importance of the rule of law and of resistance to dictatorial edicts which disregard legal principles and press for shortcuts to "justice" — that should be the enduring legacy of the Nuremberg trials, even after the last of the direct participants are no longer here to bear witness.


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