Hitler's Generals on Trial

The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg

Valerie Genevieve Hébert

By prosecuting war crimes, the Nuremberg trials sought to educate West Germans about their criminal past, provoke their total rejection of Nazism, and convert them to democracy. More than all of the other Nuremberg proceedings, the High Command Case against fourteen of Hitler’s generals embraced these goals, since the charges—the murder of POWs, the terrorizing of civilians, the extermination of Jews—also implicated the 20 million ordinary Germans who had served in the military. This trial was the true test of Nuremberg’s potential to inspire national reflection on Nazi crime.

Its importance notwithstanding, the High Command Case has been largely neglected by historians. Valerie Hébert’s study—the only book in English on the subject—draws extensively on the voluminous trial records to reconstruct these proceedings in full: prosecution and defense strategies; evidence for and against the defendants and the military in general; the intricacies of the judgment; and the complex legal issues raised, such as the defense of superior orders, military necessity, and command responsibility. Crucially, she also examines the West German reaction to the trial and the intense debate over its fairness and legitimacy, ignited by the sentencing of soldiers who were seen by the public as having honorably defended their country.

“An insightful and lucid discussion of the legal and political complexities of one of the most significant trials of the postwar period. . . . An important corrective to an increasingly revisionist and overtly critical historiography of Nuremberg.

—American Historical Review

“An outstanding contribution to a field increasingly crowded with impressive studies. Valerie Genevieve Hébert’s book breaks new ground. Hébert presents a thorough analysis of a single incident, which she places in historical perspective, some sixty years after the event under discussion. It is an outstanding contribution to a field increasingly crowded with impressive studies . . . .Hébert has produced a work that forces the reader to consider difficult questions of what humans owe to each other, how that is assessed, and how and when such a bill is paid. Her book is strongly recommended.

—H-LAW Review
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Hébert argues that the High Command Trial was itself a success, producing eleven guilty verdicts along with an incontrovertible record of the German military’s crimes. But, viewing the trial from beyond the courtroom, she also contends that it made no lasting imprint on the German public’s consciousness. And because the United States was eager to secure West Germany as an ally in the Cold War, American officials eventually consented to parole and clemency programs for all of the convicted officers, so that by the late 1950s not one remained imprisoned.

Superbly researched and impeccably told, Hitler’s Generals on Trial addresses fundamental questions concerning the meaning of justice after atrocity and genocide, the moral imperative of punishment for these crimes, the link between justice and memory, and the relevance of the Nuremberg trials for transitional justice processes today. Inasmuch as these trials coined the vocabulary of modern international criminal law and set an agenda for transitional justice that remains in place today, Hébert’s book marks a major contribution to military and legal history.

About the Author

Valerie Hébert teaches on genocide and the history of the Holocaust at the University of Toronto and has held fellowships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series