Just Punishment and the Holocaust

Topic 5


Part 1: What do you think would be a just punishment for the atrocities committed by the Nazis?

A just punishment would be, in my view, in most cases, life-imprisonment. After the Nuremberg trials, 10 of the leading Nazis were sentenced to execution. That was in international court. In the history of Israel, there’s only ever been one civil death sentence inflicted, and that was against Adolf Eichmann who was a major planner of the Holocaust and of mass murder. Historically, Judaism has been sceptical of the value of capital punishment certainly since the days of the Mishnah, eighteen centuries ago. So it really was an exception in the case of Adolf Eichmann, and I think life imprisonment makes sense.

Part 2: Is there a concept of a statute of limitations when it comes to the crimes of the Holocaust?

Is there a concept of a statute of limitations when it comes to the crimes of the Holocaust? The short answer is no, and for a very simple reason. Most criminal jurisdictions see crime rightly as an offence, not only against the victims, but against the state and against the society. And therefore, the state or the society can say, “At a certain point, after a certain number of years have lapsed, we are going to forego our right to punish.” But the crimes of the Holocaust were not crimes against society. There were crimes against humanity, and humanity cannot say, “We forego our right to punish.” It simply can’t. Crimes against humanity are simply different in kind to crimes against the state, and that is why they can be no statute of limitations.

Part 3: What is the difference between vengeance and justice?

People confuse justice and vengeance. They think they are two words for roughly the same thing. They are nothing of the kind. Vengeance is an ‘I-thou’ relationship. I have attacked you, so you attack me, or I attack your family, so you attack my family. Vengeance is the Montagues and the Capulets, or the Corleones and the Tattaglias. It’s my group against yours. That is revenge.

Revenge is forbidden by biblical law. “Thou shalt not take vengeance nor harbour a grudge,” says the Lord in Leviticus, chapter 19. It is absolutely forbidden, and the reason it is forbidden is quite obvious. It is because people and entire families can be prone to perpetuating a cycle of vengeance. It is believed that some such cycle of revenge killed all the inhabitants of Easter Island. Revenge can devastate an entire community, forever.

Justice says that it is no longer me against you. It is both of us, equally, under the impartial verdict of the law. Justice takes the whole thing out of an ‘I-thou’ relationship and elevates it to a completely impartial viewpoint in which we all stand equally under judgement. And that is the only way you can have a law-abiding society. So when Jews sought justice, they were not seeking vengeance, and the idea that they were seeking vengeance is, I’m afraid, a massive misunderstanding, and even an antisemitic one.

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Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think would be a just punishment for the atrocities committed by the Nazis?
  2. How do we effectively bring justice to those caught today, for their role in the crimes of the Holocaust? Should this be different to those caught much closer to the time? Why?
  3. How can we better search for justice rather than vengeance in our own lives and situations?

The Nuremberg trials were military tribunals held in the aftermath of World War II, initially trying twenty-four leading Nazi officials who had been detained by allied forces. The trials were held between 20th November 1945 and 1st October 1946. Whilst some of the highest ranking Nazis had either committed suicide, such as Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler (the day after he was captured by the British) or escaped Europe, including Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl, those who were captured were held to account by military and international law. Those tried were charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and wars of aggression, and for the first time the term ‘genocide’ was included in indictments (having been coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer in 1944).

Of the twenty-four tried, twelve were sentence to death, with three being acquitted and two reaching no decision (one on account of death before trial and the second due to an error of identity causing the trial to be abandoned) the remainder serving prison terms from ten years to life.

Following this initial trial, further trials were undertaken, along with trials of other Nazis in countries across Europe. Rudolf Höss, for example, the former Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was tried and sentenced to death in Poland following his capture as States were permitted to try criminals within their own borders if the crimes had been committed there. He was also utilised as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials where his evidence was important in securing the successful prosecution of other leading Nazi figures.

A ‘statute of limitations’ is a law stating that after a crime has been committed, there is only a certain length of time to try a person for that crime. After that maximum time has passed, the opportunity to begin legal proceedings to try to punish them has also passed.

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This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.