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Helpful Background

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Helpful Background:

Until the 20th century, wars in Europe were high stakes games played by kings and emperors. The victors would take wealth and booty from the vanquished and make them pay tribute. After the unprecedented destruction caused by World War I, the Allies made Germany pay huge sums as reparations. The results were disastrous. Germany was impoverished and the Allies didn't get nearly enough to pay for the cost of rebuilding. The Germans were angry and humiliated at these and other terms of the peace treaty. This anger and humiliation played a large part in the rise of the Nazis and the willingness of the German people to participate in the Second World War.

During the Second World War, the Allies realized that they could not punish entire populations, but that the individual perpetrators of the worst crimes could be tried by an international tribunal as war criminals. There was no precedent for this and the law had to be developed as the trials progressed.

There were three types of crimes prosecuted by the Nuremberg tribunals: (1) crimes against the peace (planning, starting and waging aggressive war); (2) war crimes (violations of the Hague Conventions and the laws of war generally recognized by "civilized" nations) and (3) crimes against humanity (atrocities against civilians, including exterminating racial, ethnic and religious groups and operating slave labor camps).

The defeated Nazis claimed that they were only acting under orders. The Nuremberg tribunal accepted this defense only if there was no possibility of making a choice not to carry out the order, a situation that did not apply to most perpetrators. A second defense interposed on behalf of the Nuremberg defendants was that since there was no written law that they had violated and no precedent for treating their actions as crimes, they could not be punished. In this second contention, the former foes of the United States were attempting to obtain the benefit of a principle embodied in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits ex post facto punishments, i.e., punishments for actions which were not criminal when they were committed. The Nuremberg Judges rejected the ex post facto defense on the basis that the actions of the defendants were so atrocious that it was obvious that they were criminal.

Another attempted justification for the actions of the defendants is stated by the character of the principal Defendant, Ernst Janning. He denies he knew about the atrocities of the concentration camps although he admitted condemning people unjustly in compliance with the demands of the German government. In his defense he pointed to the truly disastrous condition of the German economy (40%+ unemployment and inflation so severe that workers had to be paid twice a day so that they could go to the store to buy food before the prices went up). Hitler promised to end these conditions, and for the most part he fulfilled these promises. But Hitler argued that the tough economic conditions and the disgrace following World War I would disappear only when the groups that he considered undesirable, the Jews, the gypsies, the socialists, the communists and the disabled, were "eliminated" from German society. The Janning character and other educated people knew that this was not true. In the film, Janning asserts that show trials, such as the Feldstein Trial, were rituals of sacrifice and necessary to sustain the economic resurgence of the country. Justice Haywood rejects these arguments recognizing that condemning even one innocent man is wrong. See The Life of Emile Zola which describes the Dreyfus Affair in which the General Staff of the French Army refused to admit that it had wrongfully condemned an innocent man claiming that an admission of error would undermine the army's confidence in the high command.

The U.S. punished innocent people when it sent its Japanese citizens and permanent residents to concentration camps during WWII. See Screening America, Marlette Rebhorn, pages 118 - 126 for a critical view of this film. However, there were important differences between the incarceration of the Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government and the German killing and slave labor camps. For a memoir of a Japanese-American girl about her experiences in one of the camps see, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston.

For centuries, judges in North America enforced laws upholding slavery. For close to a hundred years, they upheld laws requiring segregation and prohibiting interracial marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a law sterilizing mentally retarded individuals and there are many people today who would support a law sterilizing mentally handicapped persons. In many states there are laws permitting pregnant girls under the age of 18, whose parents will not give consent to them having an abortion, to go to a judge and obtain permission to have the abortion. There are many who believe that the judges applying these laws are condoning murder. Is there a difference between these judges and Ernst Janning?

The defendants in the original Nuremberg trials included Hermann Göring (see brief description in the Learning Guide to The Great Dictator), Rudolph Hess and other high government and Nazi officials. Leaders of the German Army and Navy were also prosecuted. Several judges and Justice Ministry officials were prosecuted. The characters in the film are an amalgam of these individuals.

Twelve defendants were sentenced to death in the original Nuremberg trials. Seven defendants received prison terms ranging from ten years to life. Three defendants were acquitted. Other trials conducted in Germany by the Allies under the Nuremberg principles sought to punish 185 individuals, including doctors who had experimented on concentration camp inmates and prisoners of war, judges who had condemned innocent people to death or imprisonment, industrialists who had profited from slave labor and looted occupied countries, and concentration camp administrators. Some were sentenced to death by hanging, about 120 were given prison sentences, and 35 were acquitted. Japanese war criminals were also prosecuted under the principals of international law.

Many Nazi war criminals escaped prosecution and tried to live out their lives under assumed names in various parts of the world.

Some U.S. officials wanted the war crimes trials stopped. Their position was articulated by the character of the general who was struggling to organize the Berlin Airlift and needed the support of the German public against the Russians. He wanted lenient sentences to avoid alienating the Germans.


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

4.  Did the people living in Germany during the Second World War bear responsibility for the Holocaust? Did they know about the concentration camps? Was it "very few" as contended by the German defense attorney? Or as the Janning character finally admits: "Were we deaf? Blind? If we didn't know, it was because we didn't want to know." Suggested Response: Historians still debate this question, but we believe that the German population knew or, if it didn't know, closed its eyes and stopped its ears. See Learning Guide to "The White Rose". In fact, they had a responsibility to know. But this question and its answer is not placed here because of its importance in judging the "German people." Most of those alive during WWII have passed away, both the victims and the perpetrators. The Germany that exists today is a different country than the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. This question is important only from the standpoint of what it says about all peoples. Without vigilance, a civilized country with a long and proud heritage can be led into committing crimes and atrocities. Some people believe that this has occurred with the U.S. in the "War on Terror" particularly with respect to the denial of rights to prisoners at Guantanamo. All societies must be vigilant to avoid repeating the experience of peoples such as the Germans, the Rwandans, the Cambodians and the Serbe.

5.  There are now several war crimes tribunals operating throughout the world. Name two of them and tell us if you agree that international war crimes tribunals are beneficial.

Also see Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1.  What is a war crime?

2.  What is a crime against humanity?

3.  What are the Geneva Conventions?

4.  What could an individual German have done to protest the conduct of the concentration camps? Suggested Response: See Learning Guide to "Schindler's List" and Learning Guide to "The White Rose".

5.  What did you think of the German woman, Madame Bertholt, who befriended the Judge? What were her motives? Did you trust her? Compare Madame Bertholt to Emilie Schindler, Oscar Schindler's wife, who was very much his partner in his heroic efforts and who explained her actions and those of her husband by saying, "We only did what we had to do." See Learning Guide to "Schindler's List".

6.  What did you think of Herr Rolfe, the defense lawyer? Did these men deserve a defense? Would you have defended them if you had been asked to do so?

7.  What right did the Allies have to try Germans for war crimes when the Allies fire bombed Dresden, Tokyo, and other cities and when the U.S. used the atomic bomb (see Learning Guide to "Fat Man & Little Boy")?

8.  Should the prosecutor have asked for lighter sentences because of fear of the reaction of the German people? At the time of the trials, the Cold War was just beginning. Should Judge Haywood have changed his verdict to keep West German support against the Russians?

9.  Was the U.S. Army general correct when he told the prosecutor that "The thing to do is to survive, isn't it? Survive as best we can, but survive." What did the prosecutor mean when he responded "What was the war all about?"

11.  What do you think of the fact that of the 99 Nuremberg defendants given prison terms, none remained in prison by 1961?

12.  Did you think that the young man (Rudolph Peterson) should have been castrated? Should his mother have been allowed to have ten mentally defective children? If not, who should have decided how many children she should have had?

13.  What were the differences between the German concentration camps and the camps in which the U.S. government interred Japanese-Americans? Were those differences sufficient to justify what the U.S. did to Japanese-Americans during the Second World War?

14.  Many persons participated in the war crimes in Germany during the Second World War. The defendants shown in this film were surely not the worst war criminals in the country. Does this mean that they should have gone free? Judge Haywood, in responding to this argument made by Rolfe, the defense attorney, said, "If these murderers were monsters, this event would have no more moral significance than an earthquake." Do you agree?

15.  For centuries, judges enforced laws upholding slavery. For almost a hundred years, they upheld laws requiring segregation and prohibiting interracial marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a law sterilizing mentally retarded individuals. In many states there are laws permitting pregnant girls under the age of 18, whose parents will not give consent to them having an abortion, to go to a judge and obtain permission to have the procedure. There are many who believe that the judges applying these laws have condoned crimes against humanity. Should these judges be tried under the Nuremberg principles?


16.  Do you think that Judge Haywood was a male role model?

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don't threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)

1.  Describe how the crimes of the Nazis violated the ethical principle of respect.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

2.  Eventually, the Ernst Janning character recognized the importance of the principles outlined in this Pillar of Character. Describe the situation and his reasoning.


(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don't take advantage of others; Don't blame others carelessly)

3.  The Nuremberg trials were the first War Crimes trials. Prosecutors, judges and defense counsel had to make up the rules as they went along. In most situations, is it fair to make up the rules as you go along, or should the rules be set out in advance? Was making up the rules as the Nuremberg trials progressed justified? Who were the stakeholders and what were the non-ethical issues involved? Analyze the decision to hold the trials despite the fact that there was no precedent using the Ethical Decision-Making Model suggested by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. See Making Ethical Decisions.

Bridges to Reading:

Books recommended for children ten years of age and older relating to the Holocaust can be found at Learning Guide to "Europa! Europa" and Learning Guide to "Four Films About Anne Frank". Invisible Walls by Inga Hecht describes the Nuremberg laws and tells the experience of a Jewish family in Germany from 1935 to the end of World War II.

Recommended books relating to the experience of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry placed into internment camps in during WWII include: Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston; Voices From the Camps, by Larry Dane Briner; I am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment by Jerry Stanley.

Links to the Internet:

  • There are a host of websites providing information on the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials. An excellent source for information about the Holocaust is A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust.
  • Copies of the transcripts of the proceedings and other documents relating to the Nuremberg Trials are located at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials Web Page of the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:  1961 Academy Awards: Best Actor (Schell), Best Adapted Screenplay; 1962 Golden Globe Awards: Best Actor-- Drama (Schell); Best Director (Kramer); New York Film Critics Awards 1961: Best Actor (Schell). 1961 Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Tracy); Best Direction/Set Decoration (B & W); Best Black and white Cinematography, Best Costume Design (B & W), Best Director (Kramer), Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Clift), Best Supporting Actress (Garland).

Featured Actors:  Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Maximillian Schell, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, William Shatner.

Director:  Stanley Kramer.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Reel Justice, by Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow; Andrews and McMeel, 1996;
  • Screening America, by Marlette Rebhorn.

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