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Old 01-04-2007, 10:42 AM   #30
Bryan Veis
Member Bryan Veis is offline
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: Arlington  Virginia
Posts: 232
Neal, on point one, you are correct, there is (at least in Western thought) generally a distinction between morality and legality (and plenty of arguments about both).

I think you may be confusing "actual notice" with "constructive notice." If your question is whether a generic concentration camp guard would say to him- or herself, "I know shoving these people into the gas chamber is a violation of international law which trumps the laws of the Third Reich, but I'm going to do it anyway," I would say that it probably didn't happen much, if at all. (And realistically, but not sympathetically, any guard who objected would probably end up in the gas chamber, too.) The Allies' postwar justification (much oversimplified), however, was that all of those people should have known better (i.e., had constructive notice) -- no one should have to be told that sending masses of people to the gas chamber for being who they are is wrong, both legally and morally.

Setting aside the treatment of Jews in Germany proper (where we would have to discuss how and whether German internal law can be trumped by international law), the Geneva conventions dealt with the treatment of civilian populations in occupied territories, so there was specific legal authority prohibiting the mistreatment of non-German concentration camp prisoners. IIRC, while Russia was not a signatory to the Geneva conventions (hence the dual system of POW camps), France and Italy were. I don't know the status of each of the other occupied countries, but I suspect that many were signatories as well. That alone provided a legal basis for prosecution of war crimes.

It may have come as a surprise to the Germans that their treatment of their own Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual, and other "undesirable" citizens might be the subject of international prosecution. It is, however, no surprise to the world any longer that intra-national genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc. are prosecuted by international tribunals. Nuremberg set the precedent for that.

I don't really want to have a long discussion of international law here. There are entire courses in law school dealing with war crimes. The major point to be taken from the Nuremberg trials, though, is that "I was just following orders (i.e., what I was told to do by my lawfully appointed superiors)" is no defense. Some orders simply cannot ever be lawful.
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