Retribution & Reconciliation: From Nuremberg to Johannesburg




Your Honor, it is my duty to defend Ernst Janning, and yet Ernst Janning has said he is guilty. There's no doubt, he feels his guilt. He made a great error in going along with the Nazi movement, hoping it would be good for his country. But, if he is to be found guilty, there are others who also went along, who also must be found guilty.

Ernst Janning said, "We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." Why did we succeed, Your Honor? What about the rest of the world? Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not hear the words of Hitler's broadcast all over the world? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf, published in every corner of the world?

Where's the responsibility of the Soviet Union, who signed in 1939 the pact with Hitler, enabled him to make war? Are we not to find Russia guilty? Where's the responsibility of the Vatican, who signed in 1933 the Concordat with Hitler, giving him his first tremendous prestige? Are we not to find the Vatican guilty? Where's the responsibility of the world leader, Winston Churchill, who said in an open letter to the London Times in 1938 - 1938! Your Honor - "were England to suffer national disaster should pray to God to send a man of the strength of mind and will of an Adolf Hitler!" Are we not to find Winston Churchill guilty? Where is the responsibility of those American industrialists, who helped Hitler to rebuild his armaments and profited by that rebuilding? Are we not to find the American industrialists guilty?

No, Your Honor. No! Germany alone is not guilty: The whole world is as responsible for Hitler's Germany. It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power and at the same time positively ignore the basic flaw of character that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, American industrialists profit by him!

Ernst Janning said he is guilty. If he is, Ernst Janning's guilt is the world's guilt - no more and no less.



Reconciliation however, does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict. Two terrible defects weakened the foundations of the modern South African state that were laid in the great upheaval at the beginning of the century. Firstly, it rested on the treacherous swamps of racism and inequality. The second defect was the suppression of truth.

Now, at the end of the century, South Africans have the real chance to strike out along a glorious path. The democratic foundations of our society have been laid. We must use our collective strengths to carry on building the nation and improving its quality of life.

The Truth and National Reconciliation Commission which will soon begin its work, is one important institution created by our democratic Constitution and Parliament in order to help us manage the more difficult aspects of healing the nation's wounds. Thus we shall free ourselves from the burden of yester-year; not to return there; but to move forward with the confidence of free men and women, committed to attain the best for ourselves and future generations.

Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice. It means making a success of our plans for reconstruction and development. Therefore, on this December 16, National Day of Reconciliation, my appeal to you, fellow citizens, is: Let us join hands and build a truly South African nation.



Reconciliation. How many times have you been in a situation where, no matter how rational you tried to be, no matter how many times you’d done your breathing exercises that morning, you just wanted to push your colleague down the stairs for throwing you under the bus in an afternoon meeting with an angry manager? For those of you without your hand up, I think you’re lying.

Usually when I give the Sunday Gathering message I attempt to lighten the subject matter, but today's Gathering has been a particular challenge. Far more talented poets and comedians have been able to make light of their sufferings in the Holocaust or under apartheid, and my lack of direct connection to either atrocity makes me question whether it’s even my place to make second-rate Mel Brooks gags.

As Marcus mentioned in the welcome, Nuremberg and Johannesburg carry the weight of 20th century history on their shoulders, and speaking either of them with reference to justice pits two opposed ideas of punishment against one another.

In this message, we’ll be looking at Nuremberg trials and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and asking whether either could provide a model for our own lives. While the Nazi movement had precedent both before and after World War II, it wasn’t an accident that the city where the fascist nature of Nazi ideology - manifest in the segregationist Nuremberg laws - was also selected for its ostensible end, and where the same architects of the state from 9 years before would finally face justice for their role in the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews, and millions more Roma, Polish citizens, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet POWs, and disabled and queer people.

Our first reading is from the 1961 film, “Judgement at Nuremberg”, a fictionalised version of the Judge’s Trial, one of the military tribunals held in Nuremberg following the Allied victory in World War II. German defense attorney Hans Rolfe explains in his impassioned speech that while the defendants either aided or ignored genocide, the guilt cannot be hung on them alone, but in fact belongs to countless other parties, the Allies included.

As anyone who has ever visited Yad Vashem or the Holocaust Museum in Washington can attest, the long road to Auschwitz begins not in the Wannsee Conference - where Hitler’s Final Solution was embraced - but encompasses almost all of Western history: Pontius Pilate and Martin Luther, Frege and Heidegger, the Crusades and the Dreyfus Affair. The latent, popular anti-Semitism of central and Eastern Europe. The guards of the camp. The train drivers. Local police.

Needless to say, the Truth and Reconciliation scheme has been met with hostile criticism, with many prominent activists noting that lip service on the part of torturers and murderers would prove enough to exonerate them in the eyes of law and society. Other cases have still yet to make it to court, and that thousands of testimonies from countless parties were recorded as part of the proceedings goes to show how necessarily slow the entire process was.

We often hear calls for swifter justice in our own time, at virtually all levels of relative suffering: murderers must be hanged; unruly pupils slapped with rulers; the woman who just cut you off at the junction should crash; or the guy who punches you gets two back. There’s a satisfaction that come with the speed and efficacy of retribution, not necessarily in the desire to inflict pain or bloodlust, but in a more primal sense of equilibrium.

Perhaps a remnant of Old Testament eye-for-eye culture, we instinctively appreciate the sense of justice that retribution provides. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to kick a less than brilliant uncle right in his face. I’m supposed to say how these impulses - driven as they might be by knee-jerk reaction or animalistic urge - are wrong. But the retributive justice at Nuremberg was calm, considered and conducted without particular haste. The outcome set a precedent not only for how we understand and prosecute genocide in international law, but arguably set the ground for both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

Germany - or until 1989, West Germany - developed into a cosmopolitan, democratic and liberal country, and for the most part, the Nazi ideology has been thoroughly discredited. Not all of this can be put down to the Nuremberg trials alone, but the retributive justice exhibited did not lead to further fascist uprisings in Germany, or another war in the heart of Central Europe. Meanwhile, South Africa, for all the attempts of the TRC to break down the serial divisions in post-Apartheid society, still continues to struggle with deeply entrenched and institutional racism, poverty, and disease, and the promise of the new South Africa struggled under the leaderships of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.

As I struggled to make sense of these two approaches to justice and punishment, I asked a friend how he would interpret the events between Nuremberg and Johannesburg. Suggesting there may not have been much to distinguish the two after all, he pointed to the relevance of symbolism in both forms. Not every collaborator, not every guard at Bergen-Belsen, not every driver delivering Zyklon-B could be put on trial, just as the Truth And Reconciliation, for all its incredible diligence, couldn’t satisfy every call for disclosure.

Both the Holocaust and apartheid were the result of not only a few “bad apples”, but whole nations, state infrastructures, and collaborative communities. Even if every top Nazi official had faced the hangman’s noose, or if every murderer at Sharpeville and Soweto had publicly disclosed his role, the sense of justice would still remain at least partial.

It has been said that both Nuremberg and the TRC demonstrated how tackling systemic justice required individual justice, yet I would argue that it also demonstrates how public we expect our justice to be. But it is the disconnect between symbolic action and reality that has driven existential angst and cosmic despair for eons, not only for those pursuing justice, but for those seeking for higher truths.

The physical representations of the divine in Iron Age India facilitated the people’s connection to higher ideals and gods, but wood and stone could be so easily destroyed. Babylon, Persespolis, Jerusalem, Baghdad - cities that with their own existence and design, reached into heaven, only to be repeatedly decimated by invading armies. No symbol is ever perfect, and yet the alternatives seem inconceivable. Transcendence, justice, physics - all of which rely on symbols, cannot be sustained by literalism.

Delving further into the philosophy of punishment is beyond the scope of this message, but if there’s one thing that can define both Nuremberg and Johannesburg, it is that even if justice is symbolic, it is still worth pursuing. Short of having been directly affected by the Holocaust or Apartheid, the question of whether it can be enough is not ours to answer, and instead belongs to those who have memories and heritages scarred from trauma, or continue to live in a society blighted by the causative radical inequality.

I wish this message could give a simple answer between reconciliation and retribution in justice, but the complexities between Nuremberg and Johannesburg precede a reductionist lesson in how simply loving and forgiving someone is enough. Sometimes, the wrongs committed against a nation, a community, or a person may simply be too great to be contained by Truth and Reconciliation, yet at the same time, the stubborn pacifist and utilitarian within me baulks at the idea of the firing squad, and wants to keep believing in the kind of love that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”