BOOK REVIEW / Not the last of their kind: 'The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir' - Telford Taylor: Bloomsbury, 25 pounds

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MORE than the death of Hitler or the dropping of the atom bomb, the trial of two dozen top Nazis at Nuremberg between November 1945 and October 1946 (when most of them were hanged) marked the end of the old order and the start of the new. Famous men who had terrorised the world for a dozen years were humiliated, condemned and finally liquidated - much as they had liquidated others, by the million. Most important of all, the details of their crimes were clinically exposed.

The main initiative for setting up an International Military Tribunal to try the German leaders had been American. Nuremberg was in the American zone, and American legal and military personnel vastly outnumbered those from other countries. The Americanness of the occasion comes through most strongly in this engrossing book. The author - a key member of the US prosecuting staff - provides much more than an eyewitness account. Backing up his own recollections with transcripts and other sources, he conveys the extraordinary atmosphere with sensitivity and precision.

As he points out, the concept of a war crime is, on the face of it, either a contradiction or a kind of tautology. In one sense, almost every violent act of war that is not immediately defensive is criminal: why should it be more criminal to toss a child into a gas oven than to drop a bomb on its head? In another, since the definition of 'crime' involves the judgement of a dispassionate jurist, and the essence of warfare is anarchy and partisanship, the distinction between 'criminal' guilt and other kinds of culpability is not one that any participant is in a position to make. 'Crime' is a word you will always hurl at your enemy, but seldom apply to your own side or your friends.

Until the Second World War, this was scarcely disputed. The invention of the specific offence, not just of committing atrocities in war but of making aggressive war in the first place, was justified - following the defeat of Hitler - partly in terms of a number of international agreements beginning with the Hague Convention of 1899 (which had outlawed, inter alia, the dropping of projectiles from balloons), and partly on the grounds that Nazi attacks and their consequences constituted something exceptional and new.

However, the real explanation for the Nuremberg trials was the nature of the Allied victory. Because the Second World War did not end until Germany surrendered unconditionally, almost all surviving leaders of the defeated power fell into the hands of the victors, who had to decide what to do with them. For a time, the British favoured sending the Nazis (like Napoleon) to St Helena or some other island, or simply executing key figures. The Americans were less sure, and the Russians shared their uncertainty: Stalin, who had a penchant for show trials, saw the propaganda value of a legal circus that would be sanctioned by the West.

The result was the Tribunal, set up by the four powers (the USA, Soviet Union, Britain and France), with all the pomp and dignity of law, but actually part of the complex diplomacy among the fast-disagreeing victors. By the end, as the Cold War developed, the 'War Crimes Community' was one of the few remaining theatres where the iron curtain had not yet descended.

The constant bickering behind the scenes threatened at times to make the defendants themselves minor players. Nevertheless, Taylor's account is of a process treated by the lawyers of all four powers with appropriate solemnity. Certainly, Nuremberg could not and did not function like a normal court of law: the impression is always of victors' rulings, victors' retrospective law-making and victors' justice. But, within the limits allowed, there was scrupulous attention to the legal rights of defendants, and a wish to demonstrate the superiority of democratic methods over totalitarian methods.

The Nuremberg precedent is not one that has been followed in subsequent, smaller conflicts, partly because the issues have been less clear-cut and the dangers of political embarrassment greater. More important than its example, however, was the revelation, chillingly captured in Taylor's prose, of the tedious ordinariness of the Nazi elite, when stripped of the means of violence. Hess was probably mad. But few of the others were personally remarkable - or greatly different, on the surface, from soldiers, civil servants and politicians who, through luck and determination, have climbed to the top of the tree in any country.

Taylor quotes the eloquent opening statement of Justice Jackson, the American Chief of Counsel: 'The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.' Yet, looking at the familiar photographs of the sombre double row of ear-phoned, bare-headed men in the dock, scribbling notes or nodding off, as if at a rather dull international colloquium, it is difficult to find any reason to believe that they were the last of their kind.