Kim Priemel, “The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence”

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to Oxford University Press’s publication of my friend Kim Priemel‘s new book, The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence. Here is the publisher’s description:

At the end of World War II the Allies faced a threefold challenge: how to punish perpetrators of appalling crimes for which the categories of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ had to be coined; how to explain that these had been committed by Germany, of all nations; and how to reform Germans. The Allied answer to this conundrum was the application of historical reasoning to legal procedure. In the thirteen Nuremberg trials held between 1945 and 1949, and in corresponding cases elsewhere, a concerted effort was made to punish key perpetrators while at the same time providing a complex analysis of the Nazi state and German history. Building on a long debate about Germany’s divergence from a presumed Western path of development, Allied prosecutors sketched a historical trajectory which had led Germany to betray the Western model. Historical reasoning both accounted for the moral breakdown of a ‘civilised’ nation and rendered plausible arguments that this had indeed been a collective failure rather than one of a small criminal clique. The prosecutors therefore carefully laid out how institutions such as private enterprise, academic science, the military, or bureaucracy, which looked ostensibly similar to their opposite numbers in the Allied nations, had been corrupted in Germany even before Hitler’s rise to power. While the argument, depending on individual protagonists, subject matters, and contexts, met with uneven success in court, it offered a final twist which was of obvious appeal in the Cold War to come: if Germany had lost its way, it could still be brought back into the Western fold. The first comprehensive study of the Nuremberg trials, The Betrayal thus also explores how history underpins transitional trials as we encounter them in today’s courtrooms from Arusha to The Hague.

I cannot recommend the book highly enough. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship, weaving together legal history, political history, and intellectual history into a seamless and compelling whole. Kim is a superb historian — and one who writes about law as well as most legal scholars. The book also does something almost unprecedented: tell the story of the IMT and NMTs together, which is necessary for understanding both. The book’s only competitor in that regard is Telford Taylor’s wonderful book The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir — but Taylor’s book is, as the title indicates, a memoir, not an “objective” legal history.

Anyone interested in Nuremberg, international criminal law, or transitional justice will want to pick up a copy of The Betrayal. To appropriate Larry Solum: read Priemel!

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