Airey Neave's book Nuremberg is back in print for the first time in decades! To mark the occasion we're publishing the original foreword from the 1978 edition, by Dame Rebecca West...
From Mr Airey Neave’s Nuremberg: A Personal Record of the Trial of the Major Nazi War Criminals in 1945–46, I learn that he was twenty-nine years old when I met him at that trial, and I will own that I then took him for a man of forty, and rather worn at that. But then his twenty-nine years had been rather more than most people’s twenty-nine years.
He had taken an Honours Law Degree at Oxford before going to war and collecting an MC and DSO and a wound and becoming inflamed with enthusiasm for the sport of escaping from German prisons. He successfully found his way out of Colditz to England and escaped from other places on several occasions.
He struck me then as dividing his attention between ideals of a sort that refused contentment, amusement at the world, and a puzzled interest in the persistent weakness of man. I noted as the years went by that in the interstices of a busy political career he managed to become a company director in the nuclear industry and chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee of Science and Technology, and that he is now the opposition
spokesman on Northern Ireland. He has always seemed to me to have an admirably balanced attitude to life. It is, I think, against his principles to care much about danger but he would do all he could to spare the rest of us unnecessary risk. It became apparent at Nuremberg that a number of people who had had dealings with him during the war thought more highly of him than he did himself.
I welcome this book from him, because I gained the impression at Nuremberg that he was as conscious as anybody there of the true meaning of the trial. That trial was a sort of legalistic prayer that the Kingdom of Heaven should be with us; but the answer was, like all answers to prayers, coming in not as clearly as it might be. As for me, I know why the prayer was being directed towards Heaven. When I went to Nuremberg on two
occasions as correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and the New Yorker, I had had my fair share (no more but no less) of the tumbling about and senseless but nevertheless utterly necessary interruption of my life which the Second World War meant to the civilian. I had then gone out to Nuremberg and seen that the war had been worse for the Germans than it had been for me.
Spending two nights on my way down to Nuremberg, I walked out of the press hostel into a long street, as long, it seemed to me, as the road from Piccadilly Circus to Kensington High Street; and it was a trench of nothingness, the houses on each side of it had disappeared.
In another street, not so drastically punished, there were walls standing at the base of blasted buildings, and on these were stands with notices pinned all over them, inscribed with the names of families scattered by the Blitz, giving their whereabouts and begging for news of their kin; and people were standing still and reading these notices in animal eagerness, tilting their faces up and forwards as my Labrador used to stretch up his muzzle towards the tea table. At other places I looked down over barricades at hollow squares dug down into the depths of the earth, where a building had been, where its foundations were now being picked out by a frail and scrawny army of old women doing navvies’ work. They were a puddle of survivors, collected at the centre of a vast expanse of earth, stretching to the northern seas and the sunken mountains, where their menfolk were either stranded in defeat above the ground or buried beneath it.
In another part of the city I was to see a proof that because we had won the war we were not immune from mortal wounds.
I was taken by a member of the Allied Control Commission, an old friend of mine, on a drive round the city, and at one point he got out to visit a German official in a ministry situated on a low rise of the land; and he told me to go to a balustrade and look over the skeletonised city. I had every right to be there, for it was in the British Sector and I had papers giving me a free run of the area, but I suddenly heard from behind me a strange
sound, a mixture of a yell and a shout and a scream, expressing fear and rage. A very young captain in British uniform was making a strained and sobbing demand as to what the hell I was doing there, staring at me as if I had a bomb in my hand; and towards him there was hurrying a sergeant, who caught my eye, rolled his and tapped his head with his forefinger, and cast a look at the young captain in which there was tender concern
but no respect at all. Respect or no respect, the war had been too much for one soldier. Our group looked like one of Goya’s ‘Disasters of the War’, and that was just where we were.
We were living through an agony: old and new. There was the fundamental horror that comes in when peace goes out. What, have we to kill strangers lest strangers kill us, and not even be sure it will work out that way round? Can God not be on our side? Is there not something locked away inside the process of life that will recognise that there is something special about us, and save us? These are questions that people flailed by the
inexhaustible artillery of history have always asked. But there is a novelty in our situation which makes it all worse. The soldiers of the past took war for granted, and had few opportunities to rise above the level in which they were born, to live past middle age and greatly better themselves. Their twentieth-century successors looked on war as an anachronism which should long since have been abolished, and felt that if they were slain in battle they had almost certainly been done out of a long and happy life. Also there was a political change in our minds. The soldiers of the past who had fought in wars were sent into battle by kings whom they respected as anointed by the Church, or as rebels against such kings as had acted against Christ. The armies of today are sent to war by governments whom they themselves make and depose; and the men who had been recently at risk had heard Hitler, obviously not sacred, baying like a sad hound on the radio.
To arrive at Nuremberg was like stepping on to the set of a science fiction film: the extreme of unreality, and at that extremely prosaic. The name of the town was familiar but nothing else. The picturesqueness which had impressed its image on the minds of the world was now a core of rubble, surrounded by grim suburbs threaded through with overcrowded trams.
There was an unpalatable lesson here: the gross wastefulness of aerial warfare. The destruction of the old town could have served no military purpose, but the new suburbs, which were intact, consisted of factories and offices and tenements, which it would have been useful for us to destroy, and the same lesson was taught by the fields all over Germany, pockmarked with bombsites. Other curious evidence was given by the atmosphere of the American and Allied community of soldiers and officials and the press correspondents who seemed at first sight to be in what looked like a euphoric mood caused by joy at being alive, but who proved to be about as little elated as any conquerors can have been since wars had become long. They were gay for moments but were permanently depressed. Every one of them longed to go home to his native country, though they were still in a state of privation. Their eagerness for repatriation wasfrantic. Those who were free to leave when the trial was over had cleared their desks daily for weeks in advance, and as soon as was decent after the prisoners left the dock they ran out of the courthouse like children going home for the holidays, for a holiday from war.
It is the virtue of the Nuremberg trial that it was conceived in hatred of war and was nurtured by those starved of peace. To realise how grateful we should be for this birth, consider the alternative. Towards the end of the war Churchill, Eden, Lord Simon and some members of the Foreign Office held that should the Allies be victorious they should deter Germany from future war-making by the summary execution of Nazi leaders to the number of fifty to 100. The Cabinet would never have anything to do with this foolishness, and no wonder. Every one of the Nazis thus dispatched would have become a martyr; and indeed as they were not to be tried, there would have been ample opportunity for miscarriages of justice. Moreover we would not have had the extraordinarily full and detailed view of the Hitler regime which was given us by the oral and documentary evidence which was brought forward and discussed by the prosecution and the defence during the Nuremberg trial.
Of course the trial was botched and imperfect. How could it be anything else? It took place within the same year as Germany’s defeat.
It had to deal with new crimes for which there was no provision in national law or international law, but which were obviously crimes, and no humbug,since they had left on the scene many corpses which would have preferred to be alive. But when it came to punishing these crimes there was a need for very complicated thinking. The Nazi leaders could not have murdered or imprisoned the innocent had they not been upheld by the hosts of followers who had called them to power and acted as their assassins and their jailers, and it was necessary that the population should be deterred from forming such dark loyalties ever again. The problem of how to do this had to be answered by recourse to the English and American concepts of conspiracy, which are not judged to be too convenient on their home grounds. The judges themselves were not of the same legal pattern, and therefore found it hard to agree; and as for the prisoners in the dock and German public opinion, the legal preconceptions made the court proceedings almost incomprehensible to them. In German courts, the accused person is not expected to give evidence on oath in his own defence; and is not obliged to plead guilty or not guilty.
There are a number of differences, and of these one was of great importance. In Germany accused persons are commonly granted bail, even for serious offences, and it seemed an act of spite that at Nuremberg prisoners who included generals and admirals and men of high political rank should not be living in a dignified form of house arrest, but should be spending days and nights in cells and eating prison food. This reaction was a source of surprise to the prosecution; and it is an index of the unforeseen difficulties which, almost overnight, had to be solved.
The difficulty of the task, and the spirit in which it was performed, are described by Mr Airey Neave as few other people could have done it. He was a much decorated soldier and his unique war service had given him an eyeball-to-eyeball view of Hitler’s military organisations; he was a trained lawyer; also he possessed in abundance that quality which the Romans called pietas. My recollection of him made me smile when some time ago I read a too simple-minded and fashion-determined work by Mr Bradley F. Smith named Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg and came on a passage relating to the letters of Colonel Bernays, one of the originators of the American trial plan:
There is a breathtaking moment in the summer of 1945 when Colonel Bernays walked through the streets of devastated Nuremberg as part of his job of appraising the suitability of the Palace of Justice for the trial. In a letter to his wife, he chatted about his work and then gave a long and sensitive description of the mass destruction in the city and the helpless confusion and suffering of the German civilians. One waits almost
breathlessly for Bernays to ask himself whether the Allies had not lost the right to sit in judgement because of the fact that they had used such patently inhumane methods of warfare. But the mood of the times created a moral tunnel vision that was too strong…
It might be Mr A. J. P. Taylor who was writing. Of course Colonel Bernays was not so stupid as Mr Bradley Smith supposes; and neither was Mr Neave. Nor were most of the other legal personages at Nuremberg. They wished not only that Germany might not do again what it had done, but that they need not do again what they had had to do in self-defence against the Germans.
If one has any imagination at all one sees that it really cannot have been easy for them; and it occurs to one also as a great pity that their pains were wasted when, before Vietnam, nobody troubled to remember Nuremberg.
To read Airey Neave's book in full, why not take a look at Nuremberg on the Biteback website?