The Second World War stands out in multiple ways. From the gravity and scale of the crimes committed, to the widespread and extensive use of symbolism, media and propaganda to spread an ideology. Even the time directly after the end of the war stands out as a period of new beginnings: the establishment of international and regional organizations for peace and security, the creation of multiple conventions and principles on human rights and the development of modern international criminal law.
Another noteworthy aspect was the situation in Germany after the war, a country that would have to transit from an autocratic regime which had adopted the commission of the most heinous crimes as its official policy and which was responsible for the death of millions. This country would have to develop into a democratic society, acting in accordance with the rule of law and leaving behind a past filled with death and violence.
To enable this transition, the Allied powers implemented a policy of denazification, of re-education and re-shaping. The International Military Tribunal was part of this process: to show the German people what crimes their leaders had committed, and how accountability would be ensured through the rule of law. Images and audiovisual materials of the trial were distributed internationally, as part of an extensive information campaign. The USA government even ordered a documentary to be made from footage filmed during the trial, which became “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today”. The film was produced by the USA military’s Documentary Film Unit in 1948 and consists of video fragments of the trial, selected from 25 hours of film shot over the course of 10,5 months.
While watching the documentary, its purpose is impossible to miss: the didactic aim of the film can be deduced from the title and the tone of the film itself is pedantic – informing the public of the evils of the regime and its leaders. The documentary then carefully follows the proceedings before the International Military Tribunal, alternating between footage of the trial and video fragments of Nazi Germany. Interestingly enough, these video fragments of pre-war Germany were recorded by the Nazis themselves.
The significance of the documentary stems from its overview of history; from its precise chronology of the events which preceded the war, and the crimes committed during the war; and from its depiction and detailed imagery of the atrocities that took place during this period of time. While the film was screened extensively in Germany between 1948 and 1949, it was never shown in the USA. Many have speculated about the reasons why the film was never released in the USA. One reporter, John Norris, argued that either the content of the film and the way Germans were depicted could hamper the public acceptance of the government’s strategy of rebuilding Germany, or that the government was of the opinion that “Americans are so simple that they can hate only one enemy at a time”, which, by that time, was the Soviet-Union.
Both video and sound footage of the documentary were either lost or destroyed over the years – yet 60 years after the film was produced, the daughter of the writer and producer of the film restored the documentary. Together with a restoration team, she managed to preserve the original film, with no editing changes and with original audio from the trial. Once more audiences will have the opportunity to see unique images from a period of time which should never be forgotten.