BOOK REVIEW / Trial and error over Nuremberg: 'The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials' - Telford Taylor: Bloomsbury, 25 pounds

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CALLS FOR the United Nations to initiate war crimes trials in the Balkans have been rising in recent months. Press photographs of the slaughter in Bosnia have raised demands that the perpetrators be punished. Many people in the West, unable to find a clear course of military or diplomatic action which might end the killing, have seized on the possibility that atrocities might be prevented if potential perpetrators were confronted by a world community determined to punish all those carrying out 'war crimes and crimes against humanity.'

The current demand for war crimes trials resembles those made a few years ago when the allies approached the chaotic remains of Kuwait City in the latter phase of the Gulf War. Or those inspired a bit earlier by the 'Homelands' battles in South Africa. Or those which followed the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam. In each case, a public horrified by atrocities and devastation, but reluctant to embroil itself permanently in open-ended and costly conflict, toyed with war crimes trials as a possible means to control evil and prevent suffering.

This tendency to see war crimes trials as a soft solution to hard problems makes Telford Taylor's book especially welcome. The Nuremberg Trial, which was held in Bavaria in 1945/46, was the father of all modern war crimes trials, and the first occasion when a group of states (Britain, France, the USA, and Soviet Russia) bound themselves together to try war criminals. This trial, and the successive 'Little' Nuremberg trials held in the American occupation zone between 1947 and 1949, pioneered the imposition of penalties for those guilty of 'crimes against humanity' and 'crimes against peace,' as well as conventional war crimes. The Nuremberg trial also broke new ground in charging the Nazi defendants with participation in a 'criminal conspiracy' to prepare and wage 'aggressive war', during which they used 'criminal organisations' to carry out their evil plans.

Most of those involved in developing the Nuremberg Trial plan believed that due to the enormous quantity of evidence showing Nazi atrocities, all that would be necessary to produce a speedy trial would be careful planning and tight legal drafting. Those who opposed holding the trial, either because they believed it would simply be 'victors' justice,' or because they thought it was an innovation without an adequate foundation in existing law, also thought the court proceedings would be quick and the sentences draconian. What actually happened was a trial lasting 12 months - months filled with surprises and unexpected twists and turns - and in the end, instead of 22 death sentences, seven defendants were sentenced to prison, three were acquitted, and only 12 went to the scaffold.

Telford Taylor is uniquely fitted to provide a good survey of the surprises inherent in such matters. A young lawyer who led the American Ultra group to Bletchley Park in 1943, Colonel Taylor joined the American Nuremberg prosecution team under Justice Robert Jackson in the autumn of 1945. He worked as a prosecutor at Nuremberg throughout the main 'four power' trial of 1945/46, and then, after being promoted to Brigadier General, directed the series of 'little' Nuremberg trials held in the American zone of Germany during the years 1946-49. After this long stint in Nuremberg, Taylor returned to private law practice in the USA where he continued to take strong public stands on controversial issues. In the 1950s he was the first American holding senior military rank to denounce the 'smear' campaigns of Senator Joseph McCarthy. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Taylor was one of the first to call for the American Government to apply to itself in Vietnam the same principles which it had used against the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg (Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy). In the following decade he bravely wrestled with the legal dilemmas raised under American civil liberties laws when neo-Nazis carried out provocative demonstrations in Jewish neighbourhoods.

Throughout his career, Taylor has been courageous, calm, a strong advocate, and a careful draftsman. All of these qualities show to advantage in this volume. He has thought long and hard about the Nuremberg trial, tried to look at himself and his work with detachment, and changed his mind on the cases of some of the defendants. He has also followed up the leads of other writers in order to extend his knowledge in British and American archives. The result is a smooth and comprehensive account which, although it stresses the achievements of the prosecution at Nuremberg, also acknowledges that there were mistakes both of omission and commission.

Taylor is not a saint, and on occasion he dodges an issue or clips a quotation from someone he wishes to discredit. Some readers may also find his introductory section on the legal complexities and pitfalls inherent in war crimes trials somewhat daunting, but he is as clear and concise as it is possible to be when laying out the legal foundations of Nuremberg - or any other war crimes prosecution which may await us in the future. In any event, once Taylor begins to tell the day to day story of the trial, the narrative rolls along with all the tension and excitement of courtroom drama, which is exactly what it is. The reader gets a lively non-fiction story and an intelligent and useful introduction to the ambiguities of war crimes trials. That is a double bonus which should not be missed by anyone who wants a clear picture of the past, and can use a bit of cautionary guidance for the future.