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Discussing Heller’s The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of the International Criminal Law

Published on November 2, 2011        Author: 

Alexa Stiller is a Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Bern, Switzerland; e-mail: alexa.stiller [at]

Kevin Heller has written a very important book that provides the first comprehensive legal analysis of the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMTs). His main argument is that the twelve trials are of paramount historical importance, not only because they created a huge amount of documentary evidence of the crimes of the Third Reich but first and foremost because the tribunals played an important role in the development of international criminal law (and to make this clear from the outset, I absolutely agree with his assumption).

Heller’s book is divided in five sections, each consisting of three chapters. Sections one and five, the origins of the NMT trials and the aftermath as well as their legacy, are the historical parts of the book, the middle sections are dedicated to a legal discussion of the Tribunals, the law and procedure, the jurisprudence, and the modes of participation and defenses that the Tribunals approved. Although Heller has written an essentially juristic book, he has no blinders on concerning historical methods. He tries to connect both disciplines and I highly appreciate the effort. In this comment I would like to show two aspects – strictly from the viewpoint of a historian – where his analysis does not make full use of the potential for differentiation. First, in examining the people who played an active role in the trials; secondly, in analyzing the interpretations and narratives in the courtroom. (This and the following reflections are presented in more detail in my co-edited volume Unearthing the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. Transitional Justice, Trial Narratives, and Historiography. Oxford/New York: Berghahn 2012 (forthcoming)).

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