During the past few weeks, I have revisited two classics—one, a book, Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, and the other, a movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, with an all-star cast directed by Stanley Kramer—and I was struck by a profound thought: that you can’t fully understand the 20th century unless you understand the issues raised so penetratingly by these works. Witness, of course, is the life story of a former Communist and active member of the CPUSA underground, who left the party and later provided crucial and very controversial testimony in the famous Alger Hiss Case before the House Un-American Activities Committee on the Communist infiltration of high levels of the U. S. government during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) tells the story of the trial and conviction by the post-World War II American tribunal of high-ranking members of the Nazi German judiciary during the Third Reich.
Nothing I have read captures the essence of the Communist mind and socialist threat as Chambers does, and he weaves his tale in 1954 in a way that is eerily prescient of many of the conflicts we still face today, for the crux of the Communist faith, which is that salvation by society in a world without God is the only solution to the crisis of history, is alive and well in the progressive remnants left behind under other names, both here and abroad, by the discrediting of institutional Communism. And it is amazing how complicit in this faith and the relentless pursuit of power based on that faith were and are the American fellow-travelers, up to the point of complete denial to this day, despite incontrovertible evidence gleaned from KGB files since the fall of the Soviet Union, and how willing to ignore or rationalize the pervasiveness of this evil our major cultural institutions were and are.
Judgment at Nuremberg is a must see in understanding the true corruption of the Third Reich, because it focuses not on the military war criminals, but on those whose insidious corruption of the rule of law undermined what was at the time the most advanced intellectual society in the world. I was particularly struck by how easy it might have been to rationalize, as defense attorney Rolfe (portrayed by Academy Award winner Maximillian Schell) did, the compromises of the rule of law as temporary expedients to salvage a nation and a culture. It is also a classic treatment of the conflict, very much at issue today, between the positive law and natural law in the prosecution of crimes against humanity, and how, in fact, our distinctively American philosophy of pragmatism as expressed in key U. S. court decisions during the progressive era was thrown back at us in defense of Nazi eugenics policy.
These are timeless works with messages to match, and I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’s line about the “magician’s bargain” from The Abolition of Man: “Give up your soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.”