The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Judgment at Amsterdam

One of the most riveting dramas on the subject of moral judgment is Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), in which Spencer Tracy, as Dan Haywood, the presiding American judge of a tribunal called to try four Nazi judges, is subjected to the corrosive, moral relativist arguments of the defense and the ambivalent, pragmatic policies of some of his American colleagues. In fact, there is virtually no quarter from which Haywood’s judgment and moral rectitude are not assailed, openly, and subtly. He encounters an ad hoc conspiracy to make him doubt his right and ability to judge anyone.

Haywood’s chief conflict is with himself. He states in the beginning, in a conversation with his excuse-making servants, that he merely wants to understand why Germans allowed things to happen. Tracy underplays the internal and external conflicts and his character, almost to a fault. But his character remains resolute throughout the film. During the trial, he is often at odds with the American prosecutor, Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), overruling Lawson’s objections to his opponent’s questionable tactics and procedures.

One of the Nazi judges is the enigmatic Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), who at first refuses to recognize the tribunal as a legitimate judicial body, but who in the end professes admiration for Haywood.

The beautiful, cultivated, but embittered Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), widow of a German general executed for war crimes, plies her charms on Haywood, feigning friendship and sympathy with the man she wishes to persuade that it was not the German people or their culture that was responsible for the Holocaust, but the circumstances of the time and the need to survive Hitler. She claims that she and her husband hated Hitler, as did many other educated, high-ranking Germans. She is a siren song of victimhood.

Janning’s fiery defense counsel, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), attempts to persuade Haywood and the two other tribunal judges that guilt for the war and the atrocities committed by the Nazis must be shared by the whole world, because it permitted the crimes to be committed. He also blames Nazi “extremists” for the crimes, and not their ideology, and that if the four judges on trial are guilty of anything, it was of patriotism for their country. They did, he argues, observe and enforce German law, and it was no business of others to judge that law. He does everything he can to discredit the character and testimony of witnesses against the judges. His principal conflict, however, is not with the court, but with his client, Ernst Janning. (Schell’s performance is a tour de force.)

Haywood’s senator and an American general urge Haywood to go easy on the German judges, for a harsh sentencing would alienate other Germans, whose help the Allies might need to oppose Soviet designs in Eastern Europe. The Soviets have moved into Czechoslovakia and sealed off West Berlin. They also argue that the main trials are over, the worst Nazis have been sentenced to death or have been imprisoned, and that no one is interested in the trials now.

Haywood’s fellow judges waffle on the issue, wanting to resort to case law and legal precedent to decide a verdict against the German judges. They are oblivious or indifferent to the overall moral issue that Haywood struggles to grasp.

In a climactic scene, Janning rises from the dock and stops Rolfe from employing the same hectoring technique on a helpless victim on the witness stand (played by Judy Garland) that Nazi prosecutors used in courts, and delivers an impassioned confession of guilt for his actions during the Nazi era. He damns himself as well as the three other judges in the dock who had served under him. The prosecutor and the audience are stunned. Even Haywood seems to be moved by the confession.

The tribunal (with one dissension) finds all four judges guilty and sentences them to life imprisonment. As Haywood calls the names of the defendants, his most merciless pronouncement is reserved for Janning. This, too, stuns the court. They had expected him to “go easy” on Janning. Mrs. Bertholt, in the audience, drops her headphone in defeat.

But in the final scene, in Janning’s prison cell, the most dramatic argument is stated to conclude a practically flawless film. Janning requests that Haywood see him before he leaves for America, ostensively to give the American a record of his cases. Then he praises Haywood for his judgment.

“If it means anything to you, you have the respect of at least one of the men you convicted. By all that is right in the world, your verdict was a just one.”

Haywood answers:

“Thank you. What you said in the courtroom, needed to be said.”

Janning then pleads:

“Judge Haywood….The reason I asked you to come…those people…those millions of people….I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it!”

Haywood stares coldly at Janning. His next words are pitiless.

“Herr Janning…It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

Janning is crestfallen. His last attempt at forgiveness has failed in the face of uncompromising justice. Haywood will not grant him the solace of moral relativism.

Imagine the anticlimax had Haywood answered, I understand. That answer would have been in conformance with the predominant morality which claims that compassion, mercy, and pity are cardinal virtues, and that actual justice – in this instance, holding an individual responsible for his actions – was cruel, arbitrary, and inhuman. It would have negated everything that had preceded that scene, leaving everyone in the audience wondering about the purpose of the story.

Those two simple words would have sanctioned Janning’s crimes, relieving him of the responsibility for his actions, allowing him to believe that his actions were necessary for his and his country’s survival. They would have left him feeling blameless. Those two simple words would have validated Counselor Rolfe’s charge that everyone and no one was responsible for the deaths of millions at the hands of the Nazis, and that the killers and the judges who sent the victims to their fates were not at fault.

Everyone was a “victim.” They couldn’t help it.

Had the director and screenwriter subscribed to that morality, “Judgment at Nuremberg” would never have been made. Some residual commitment to reason, some knowledge of the proper moral position, made such a movie possible. But the residue and knowledge are gone today, eclipsed, among other things, by subjectivism and the moral relativism that assailed Haywood. As Barack Obama wishes to erase America’s exceptionalism, so do her other enemies, foreign and domestic.

(Compare the conduct of the Nuremberg trial in this movie with the trial scene in “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” [2005]. It will give one a flavor of how Nazi trials were conducted when individuals had earned the wrath of a totalitarian state.)

Half a century later, there are no Judge Haywoods in any judicial system, American or European. In fact, today it is Judge Haywood who is in the dock. His name is Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician accused by the state of the “crime” of hate speech. He is being tried by a panel of judges who have said to Islam, to Muslims, “I understand.”

The parallels between Wilders’ predicament and Haywood’s are eerie. Wilders is on trial for making a moral judgment about Islam, a political/theocratic, totalitarian ideology similar in numerous respects to Nazism, which was implicitly on trial in Nuremberg. He has called for a halt to Muslim immigration to the Netherlands, called for a ban of the burka, called for a halt to Sharia, for a halt to the Islamazation of his country, has likened the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and has warned that Islam is hostile and a peril to Western civilization. Leftist and Muslim organizations brought suit against him, charging him with “hate speech,” insulting Muslims, and with inciting violence and discrimination against them, even though no violence or discrimination ever occurred as a result of his remarks.

What this amounts to is a political trial of Wilders, a highly popular Dutch political figure because of his populist stands including such issues as banning burkas and fining Muslim women who don such Sharia compliant attire in public, as well as banning Muslim immigration to the Netherlands. Make no mistake about it, the trial is a thinly disguised attempt to convict and imprison Wilders on Islamic Sharia compliant charges of blasphemy.

As in other European countries, the Netherlands has laws that forbid “hate speech” against any religious or ethnic minority. The definitions and enforcement of those laws are broad but vague enough to encompass virtually any utterance or action. Practically the only group that takes advantage of those laws is the Muslim one. In Britain, a veteran was arrested, jailed and fined for burning a Koran in a private video in protest of Muslims burning poppies on Remembrance Day. In Austria, a man was fined for yodeling near a mosque where prayers were being held. In Norway, an Islamic expert was found guilty of “racism” for discussing the Muslim problem of the rape of Muslim girls by Muslim men.

The late Oriana Fallaci remarked:

Europe is no longer Europe, it is Eurabia, a colony of Islam, where the Islamic invasion does not proceed only in a physical sense, but also in a mental and cultural sense.

Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, another Austrian targeted for punishment, was charged with a “hate crime” for criticizing Islam. She agrees with Wilders about the core, fundamental nature of Islam;

“I’ve read the Koran. I’ve studied the books from both sides — the pro and the con. And I can tell you from what I’ve studied — Islam is a political ideology disguised as a religion.”

And in the United States, Sharia-defined blasphemy steadily corrodes the concept of freedom of speech, secular law and the nominally secular foundations of our judiciary, from Terry Jones being jailed and fined for merely indicating a desire to protest Islam near the Dearborn, Michigan mosque to anyone burning a Koran in any venue, public or private, to the raw fear of and studied deference to Islam and Muslims in the mainstream media.

Ideally, the U.S. Navy should have dipped the body of Osama bin Laden in a vat of bacon grease, making sure there was a trailing pack of sharks in the Arabian Sea poised to feed on the cadaver before it was unceremoniously heaved overboard, sans washing, winding sheet, and prayers. But our military has submitted to the acolytes of the ideology that is making war on us (Islam meaning, after all, submission), in war and in peace. Some Muslim critics are almost right in asserting that bin Laden wielded such a mystical power over our military that it observed Muslim burial rituals. Rather, it is an unreasoning fear of Islam, nearly a superstition, and the politically correct behavior of not “offending” or “insulting” Muslims lest they indulge in another “day of rage” and run amok.

Imagine, if you will, that the U.S. was able to recover Hitler’s body from the Berlin bunker in April 1945. Would our government have mandated a burial in conformance with German tradition and with full honors accorded a head of state, including a casket draped with the Nazi flag? Perhaps with a warhorse with cavalry boots suspended backwards from the saddle? No. But the seeds of such a spectacle were already in existence. They merely took decades to sprout.

Our policies have degenerated to the one that urged Judge Haywood to “go easy” on the Nazi judges, because otherwise a harsh sentence would have offended the Germans. (We “needed” them? Germany was a defeated, occupied country.) Under the mutually complementary policy of pragmatism and moral relativism, truth is subjective and irrelevant, an individual’s integrity and commitment to the truth are secondary in the face of others’ needs – in this instance the pseudo-self-esteem of mindless manqués who bow to a rock and swear fealty to a psychotic deity – and respect for the speech rights of those who would employ them can be sacrificed to those who do not respect them.

Our policies should – and must – adopt the cold, pitiless stare of Judge Haywood when Islamists plead victimhood and disclaim responsibility for their ideology and actions. That is what it should come to. That would be the soul-killing justice Islam has earned over its fourteen century history.

It will require the courage and moral certainty of a man who indeed understands, and not believes. The courage and moral certainty of a man like Geert Wilders.


Atlas Shrugged, Part I: Or, Cortlandt Homes, Redux


Atlas Shrugged, Part I: A Cinematic Go-Cart


  1. Anonymous

    "I've read the Koran. I've studied the books from both sides — the pro and the con. And I can tell you from what I've studied — Islam is a political ideology disguised as a religion."

    The only objection I have to this statement is that Islam is "disguised" as a religion. The perspective of that quote reveals deep seated pro-religion sentiments. Why is Islam "disguised"? It is a religion. One that is very openly warlike and hostile.

    I guess this statement is meant to suggest that Christianity is a "true" religion because it is "peaceful". And it is that sentiment right there which is responsible for the West's capitulation to Islam. The idea that Christianity is peaceful because it preaches altruism is the very idea that needs to be repudiated. If it were, the West would be able to fight back against Islam and Wilders would not be on trial.

    D. Bandler

  2. revereridesagain

    "Blasphemy" is, of course, an invalid legal term since no crime can be committed against a being that does not, and can not, possibly exist — namely, a god.

    But even mainstream Christians and Jews in this culture view those of us who are atheist with a greater level of knee-jerk suspicion than they do "moderate" muslims, who they like to believe somehow practice a benign version of their violent, rabidly irrational religion. (In reality, "moderate" muslims are cowards who keep silent in the hope that they can continue to fly under the radar until they know which side is going to win. In "Judgment at Nuremberg" terms, they blame all the crimes of fellow muslims on the "eskimos".)

    Linda Blood

  3. Joe

    One of my favorite movies… You are dead on correct Ed.

    What a world this would be if we had a resurgence of men with a commitment to Justice as demonstrated in that film.

  4. Edward Cline

    There are so many facets to "Judgment at Nuremberg" that I could not cover them all in the article. But here I want to stress two others. The first is the obvious conflict and conflict in Haywood as he announces Janning's guilt and sentence. Tracy communicates that struggle perfectly in his expression, with imperceptible pauses and the like, telegraphing his initial reluctance to condemn Janning. It is a conflict of emotions versus objective knowledge, and the latter wins out. The American general in the audience shakes his head, saying to the Widmark character that Haywood “just doesn’t understand.” Widmark, in turn, says that Haywood does understand.

    In a following scene, Haywood is seen twice trying to call Mrs. Bertholt. The phone rings, but she does not answer it. She knows who is trying to call her, and does not answer the phone. Haywood’s interest in her is ambiguous in this scene, not clear. Possibly it is a romantic interest, but the Rolfe character enters the room and Haywood replaces the receiver, and the subject is not revisited. However, one is prepared for the telephone scene by the William Shatner character telling Haywood, “That’s one you owe me,” or that Shatner’s German girlfriend has given him the cold shoulder because of the trial verdict on the Nazi judges.


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