books,  politics

Book Review: Letters from Nuremburg

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The past week I’ve been reading Letters from Nuremburg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice by Senator Christopher J. Dodd. The introduction to the book pulled me in, for Christopher Dodd writes comparing Nuremberg to Guantanamo. Nuremberg was the triumph of choosing law instead of revenge, and Guantanamo represents the opposite. In allowing Guantanamo Americans have choosen to act out of fear.

He talks of wanting to filibuster the Military Commissions Act of 2006, because the legislation:

“allows the president to define our commitments under the Geneva conventions through regulation rather than legislation. It allows the president’s interpretation to be authoritative as a matter of U.S. law, in the same manner as other administrative regulations. It essentially gives the president authority to define whast specific techniques do not constitute “grave breaches” of the Genevea conventions and are therefore allowable. The definition of the bill of “unlawful enemy combatant” is broad and can result in summary imprisonment for legal immigrants. It strips the federal court of its powers. The law also allows coerced and secret evidence. And it provides a basis for defense of those who may have committed war crimes before the act was passed.”

He was talked out of filibustering for fear he didn’t have enough support and for fear that filibustering would paint the Democrats as soft on terrorism. He says that decision to drop the filibuster was his last compromise on the issue. I wonder if Guantanamo would have been closed by now had his run for the presidency been successful.

The book is composed primarily of letters written by Christopher Dodd’s father, Thomas J. Dodd, one of the American lawyers involved in the Nuremburg trial. The letters are sweet, filled with devotion to his wife and children, and they are very dated. Tom writes to his wife to send him cheques to sign to take care of the insurance, berates her for not writing on both sides of the piece of paper and worries that she’s letting the kids swim too unsupervised. The phrase “gilded cage” comes to my mind, and I wonder how his wife experienced her life? Is there a connection between the constant devotion he writes and the limits she had on her life? What was her life really like?

The letters also capture the moment of time between the end of WWII and the beginning of the cold war. Tension mounts with the Soviet Union. Tom writes that the Russians are not allowing the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to send enough food to Austrians. He argues the defendants are trying to stall the end of the trial in a hope that the problems with the Russians will prevent its conclusion. Its a fascinating look at the time period. It is the reminder also that the giving of a fair trial to war criminals was not a luxury they could afford because of how perfect their time period was.

I’m used to the idea that we should not compare other groups to the Nazi’s. People do so at the peril of looking like idiots, and I’ve certainly seen some ridiculous comparisons. For example, I’ve seen people online paraphrase the famous lines about “first they came for….” in an attempt to say that efforts to prevent parents from being duped by unskilled midwives into making unsafe choices as being equivalent to what the Nazi’s did. Yet the book Letters from Nuremberg suggests there may be times and places to draw comparisons.  Even while Tom was working daily with stories of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi’s he was not willing to say that no one else would ever be as evil. In fact he drew comparisons between them and the horror stories he was hearing about the Soviet Union. In his introduction Christopher Dodd suggests that the United States is moving towards the behavior of the Nazi’s, embracing torture and denying justice. How far will the “war on terror” bring us?

In his interrogations with Nazi prisoners Tom Dodd noted that they all blamed others. They blamed the Jews. They blamed Czechoslovakia for being about to invade them. Keitel blamed Czechoslovakia and France for being about to invade even though he had previously written to Hitler suggesting ways to frame the Czechs. I wonder how much the generals and officials came to believe their own lies or if they knew they were lying right to the end, but it reminds me of all the excuses politicians give now for why they have to go to war. I do not believe that 9/11 was faked. But I know that attacking Afghanistan to “get Osama Bin Laden” is turning one’s back on the lessons of Nuremberg. I know that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. I know that we have choices for how we deal with terrorism rather than turning our backs on civil liberties.

So how do we stand up for justice and truth? I think one of the important things is that we challenge the way politics is done. How heartbreaking it is that fear of losing an election would cause Democrats to not stand up against the Military Commissions Act of 2006. We need to challenge the meanings the political right have assigned to our language, particularily to words such as patriot. We need to broaded the political conversations so that people can make electoral choices based on a real understanding of the issues not just a few hot-button issues. I don’t know what else, but surely there’s change that needs to be made, and education has to be a key to that.

I am Canadian, not American, but the same issues of justice, rule of law or fear and revenge play out in Canada too. I know that Canada is wrong in its treatment of Omar Khadar. I know Canada is making wrong moves right now in laws that will strip the right of appeal from Canadian permanent residents and make them subject to quick deportation.

I do not know where we will go from here, whether we will continue to act from fear and unsound agendas or whether enough people will stand up for justice. I do not know how we will treat each other or how history will treat us.

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One Comment

  • Nikki Bennett


    I wasn’t sure how to contact you, but I was wondering if you’d like to do a book review on my MG book FOUR FIENDS. I’ve had a couple of homeschoolers review it and use it in their lessons, and I’m hoping to expose this book to more of the homeschooling community. You can check out the book at
    Please e-mail me if you are interested.

    Nikki Bennett
    Author -FOUR FIENDS

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