There have been vast improvements in the techniques and technology of filmmaking since 1961, when Stanley Kramer made Judgment at Nuremberg. But it’s difficult to imagine any cast today improving on the extraordinary performances of Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift in that gripping courtroom drama, which explores the meaning of justice in Germany’s—and the world’s—moral reckoning with the evil of the Third Reich.
The Nuremberg trials, which lasted for several years, were not flawless. Serious jurists and public officials asked whether “victors’ justice” could be true justice, while others questioned the rectitude of indicting men for crimes that were not defined statutorily at the time they were committed. That Soviet hack Andrey Vishinsky was a prosecutor at the first Nuremberg trial was nothing less than grotesque; Vishinsky had first come to international attention as a prosecutor in Stalin’s infamous Purge Trials, in which he urged the “court” to deal with his former Bolshevik comrades in these terms: “Shoot these rabid dogs. . . . Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses . . .”
Whatever the flaws of the Nuremberg trials, however, manifestly guilty men and women were held accountable for unspeakable acts of wickedness. The trials also confronted the German people with what had been done by public officials and jurists who claimed to be acting for the good of their country. Germany is a model democracy today for many reasons. The moral reckoning the Nuremberg trials made unavoidable is one of those reasons.
Nothing like that legal, political, and moral reckoning has happened in post-Soviet Russia. That is why Lenin’s mummified corpse is still honored in Moscow’s Red Square. That is why an independent survey in 2021 found that 56 percent of the Russian people think of the mass murderer Stalin as a “great leader.” And that is one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin, seemingly Russia’s president-for-life, exists—and poses a mortal threat to peace in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine.
Putin is conducting a carefully orchestrated campaign to reverse history’s verdict in the Cold War and subjugate the now-independent former “republics” of the old Soviet Union. That campaign would not have been possible if, having confronted the hard truths about the Soviet past as the German people were compelled to do by the Nuremberg trials, the Russian people had built a law-governed Russian state. What happened instead was that ex-KGB apparatchik Putin and a cadre of oligarchs built a lawless kleptocracy that murders its political opponents, invades its neighbors, conducts massive disinformation and destabilization campaigns around the world, shuts down non-governmental organizations dedicated to memorializing the victims of communism, and masquerades as the defender of “Christian” civilization, all at tremendous cost to the Russian people. Because there was no “Russian Nuremberg,” a fifteen-year-old boy in Russia in 2012 had a life-expectancy three years lower than that of a fifteen-year-old boy in Haiti.
Vladimir Putin’s current aggression against Ukraine also deploys the Big Lie that Ukraine is not a real nation—a malignant falsehood based in part on the claim that Russia is the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the Eastern Slavs. That epic event in fact took place in Kyiv (now the capital of Ukraine) in 988, when what’s now Moscow was a dense forest inhabited by wild animals. The subsequent history of Eastern Slavic Christianity is vastly complicated, to be sure. Those complexities notwithstanding, the Russian claim to be the sole proprietor and interpreter of that history is theological and historical nonsense—just as the Russian stance toward Ukraine since at least the late-eighteenth century has been that of imperial aggressor. In 1932-33, that aggression turned into a genocide, when, in the Ukrainian Holodomor (“Terror Famine”), Stalin and his minions deliberately starved to death at least four million Ukrainians.
Putin’s Russian regime is a danger to the Russian people and the world, and will likely remain so, until the kind of moral and historical reckoning that took place in Germany after World War II takes place in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has immense spiritual resources, could play an important role in a national examination of conscience. It will not do so, however, so long as its leader, Patriarch Kirill, teaches, as he did recently, that his country’s current social condition is “a manifestation of God’s mercy,” even as Kirill proclaimed that “Russia is the leader of the free world.”
George Orwell, call your office.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference