Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Why Schacht and Von Papen Were Freed at Nuremberg

(14 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 41, 14 October 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE long and tedious Nuremberg trials are over. That in a few days such vermin as Goering and von Ribbentrop will no longer contaminate this earth, somehow makes all of us feel that there is just a little less ugliness in this world. These Nazi leaders have a record of mass murder, of inhumanity and brutality which is the ultimate index of the depths to which capitalist civilization has sunk.

No, they will not be missed: these butchers and murderers, who danced on the graves of Europe’s workers and who gave to the world the names of Maidoneck and Buchenwald.

That Goering and the others condemned to death do not deserve to live is so obvious as to require no further discussion. But what about those whom the Nuremberg Tribunal freed? Schacht, von Papen and Fritsche. What are we to make of their acquittal – and who are these men absolved of the crimes with which they were charged?

We have no intention of getting wound up in the legal rigmarole with which delighted lawyers are discussing the Nuremberg trials. This much we know: Hjalmar Schacht, Franz von Papen and Hans Fritsche worked hand in glove with Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party. These men who have been freed, have a record of complete and unquestioning support of Nazism.

The Political Key to the Trials

Once we discover why these scoundrels have been freed, we have the key to the political meaning of the trial. The case of Fritzche seems something of a quirk and is not of first importance, but the freeing of Schacht and Von Papen is not a quirk. Schacht and Von Papen were the spokesmen for that major section of German capitalism which played ball with Hitler; they were the intermediaries from Big Business who negotiated with Hitler.

Now it is precisely to the remnants of these very same elements – German Big Business – that Anglo-American imperialism is at present appealing for support in its attempt to dominate Germany and lessen Russian influence in Germany. By freeing Schacht and von Papen, Anglo-American imperialism is extending a hand of partial friendship to all of Schacht’s and von Papen’s friends. What this means concretely is told in a New York Herald Tribune dispatch, dated October 1, which reads:

“SCHACHT VERDICT LIKELY TO SPARE MANY BANKERS – Hundreds of German industrialists and Germany’s leading bankers probably will be spared international trial as a result of the acquittal of Hjalmar Schacht, Nazi financial wizard ...”

The freeing of Schacht and von Papen is a logical step in the policy outlined in Secretary of State Byrnes’ recent Stuttgart speech: Anglo-American imperialism is to attempt to rebuild a somewhat strengthened German capital as a base of support against its Russian imperialist rival.

It is therefore understandable why the Russians opposed freeing Schacht and von Papen. They don’t need them as agents; they have their own agents, the Stalinist parties, ready and willing. In the struggle in Germany between Russian imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism, both lean on two main agencies: the former on their Stalinist puppet parties and the latter oh the remnants of the German capitalist class. Under the circumstances, it is clear why the Russians could afford to be so intransigent ... toward the very Nazis with whom they had not so long ago signed a “non-aggression pact.”

Attitude to the General Staff

That the freeing of Schacht and von Papen was an indication of Anglo-American imperialism’s policy of making overtures to German capitalism, can be seen in the refusal of the Military Tribunal’s statement to name the German Army General Staff as a “criminal organization” responsible for the war in the same sense as the Nazis. Instead, the Tribunal labeled its behavior as “a disgrace to the honorable profession of arms.” Two points stand out in connection with this partial whitewash of the General Staff:

  1. Just as it wishes to utilize the remnants, of German capitalism, so Anglo-American imperialism is considering the eventuality when it may need the German General Staff. Hence, its condemnation of INDIVIDUAL GENERALS only as criminal, and its failure to condemn the staff as a whole; though it is common knowledge that the General Staff worked hand in glove with Hitler in preparing for and in the conduct of at least the early stages of the war.
  2. The idea of trying generals – even German generals – for their behavior during war has not appealed to the American military. When the Nuremberg indictments were drawn up, the Army and Navy Journal, unofficial organ of the U.S. services, said that the indictment of a general staff for its behavior in a war would deter “gentlemen from entering the military profession.”

Similarly, Anne O’Hare McCormick writes in the New York Times of October 1 that “professional soldiers are afraid that indicting military high commands establishes a dangerous precedent ...”

Which explains the dual judgment of the Nuremberg court: it absolved the General Staff of criminality to be able to use it in the future, and then labeled it a “disgrace to the honorable profession of arms” in order to suggest that the German General Staff was unique and that its indictment is not a precedent for other military staffs. But the German Staff was not unique in its murderous brutality – no more so than the French General Staff which suppressed the Indo-Chinese, nor the British which killed Indians and Jews, nor the U.S. General Staff which in its history invaded Central American republics, suppressed independence fighters in the Philippines and helped break strikes.

Why the Trials Were Held

Against this background we can understand, the purpose of the trials. Originally the victors in the war wanted to get rid of the top Nazi leaders because so long as they were alive they could serve as a rallying center for a Nazi resurgence. This is not to say that the victors cared too much about eliminating fascism or totalitarianism; it was merely that they wanted to cut off the TOP Nazi leadership even while they were absorbing large sections of its secondary leadership into the AMG-controlled local governments in Germany.

But more important, they wanted to perpetuate as long as they could the frayed myth that the war was a crusade for democracy – a myth that seems more preposterous each passing post-war day as we see the imperialist struggle for a division of the spoils. And a trial of the leading Nazis seemed a dramatic device with which to bolster this myth. As the trial proceeded, and as Anglo-American imperialism settled down for a fierce struggle with its Russian rival, it conceived of the idea of using the trial as a means of partially vindicating Schacht and von Papen, and thereby the classes they represented, in order to prepare for the struggle with the Russians.

The trials, in brief, were intended as a device of imperialist politics. As such they were only partially successful, for many gaping holes were left visible to the public eye – not the least of which, incidentally, was the haste with which a Nazi witness was shut up when he began talking about secret clauses in the Hitler-Stalin pact.

The great tragedy of the trials is that the real victims of Nazism were not the judges. It should have been the German working class, sitting on a socialist tribunal with representatives of the other workers of Europe, who would dispose of Goering. For then Schacht and von Papen would not have been whitewashed – and, infinitely more important, the social putrescence of capitalism which gave rise to Goering and which may yet give rise to other Goerings, would not be allowed to continue.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 19 July 2020