Cover of “The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence” by Kim Priemel, Oxford University Press (2016)

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Nuremberg trials a betrayal to history?

Book Review: “The Betrayal” by Kim Priemel


Kim Priemel’s “The Betrayal” is a very thoroughly researched historical but also philosophical and critical narrative of the Nuremberg Trials. Two principal questions guide the reader through the book: Can history be judged, and if so, by what means? And can accountability mechanisms and the applicable law ever be neutral given their historically influenced evolution?

Priemel questions the success of Nuremberg, given its selective focus on only certain parts of history, namely the guilt of Germany. The book is divided into ten chapters each looking at different stages of the Nuremberg Trials, from the selection of judges and legal practitioners of the International Military Tribunal across to the Krupp case and the Doctor’s trial. Each of the chapters engages with the reasons for bringing a certain group before trial and elaborates on the discussions around the subject matter of the trial, the strategy of the defence and prosecution. In order to do so, Priemel occasionally drifts off into historical facts which do not necessarily serve in proving his overall point. For those familiar with the historical facts of World War II these details might indeed be redundant and there are certainly more comprehensive narratives available. Nonetheless, for those interested in the Nuremberg Trials, ‘The Betrayal’ is an excellent volume questioning and scrutinising the role of courts. ‘The Betrayal’ does not go into detail on the development of international criminal law but rather focuses on the role of courts in constructing a historical narrative. This is Priemel’s first argument for betrayal. Does the one-sided guilt of the Germans, which was established by virtue of the Nuremberg Trials, truly reflect the entirety of the conflict and atrocities committed during World War II? His second argument encompasses a sense of betrayal on the part of the allies, stemming from Germany’s breach of perceived shared Western values. In doing so, Priemel makes very good use of primary sources underlying his arguments, citing original documents from the trials and providing the reader with an elaborate insight into the discussions behind the scenes; a rare feature in other literature. Based on his assessment of the one-sided trials in Nuremberg, Priemel questions the legitimacy of the very foundations on which historical narratives are created. Taking this a step further he contemplates whether courtrooms could ever be seen as the sole or appropriate manufacturers of historical accounts. Furthermore, he argues that the Nuremberg Trials were intended to create a narrative of the involvement of different parts of the German society with the Nazi regime, this was to the detriment of the international criminal justice aspects during the Trials.

The development of the ‘Nuremberg Principles’ however is still very relevant today. Nonetheless, it seems that the legal and historical approaches to international criminal justice and the punishment of large scale atrocities have grown apart. Historical realities cannot be judged by a court and still today, courts and international criminal justice mechanisms are being accused of a lack of cultural sensitivity and historical consciousness. Courts and laws are a product of history and their legitimacy is affected by how laws are developed in certain historical moments as they give birth to special norms and institutions, in order to deal with occurring conflicts and wars. In turn, courts also affect history, such as the selection of the individuals put on trial or the judgement given for certain crimes, including the development of the definition of crimes. Germany today and the genesis of transitional justice can be seen in a way as a product of Nuremberg.

Shedding light on the purpose behind placing certain sections of German society on trial in order to create a narrative about the guilt within the history of Nazi Germany unveils the unfrequented lines of key junctures at which Germany strayed from an ideal path. In Priemel’s view a “thick paper trail connects the wartime debates to the courtroom” and the well-established knowledge about Germany was simply interpreted and translated into a sort of legal knowledge offering a comprehensive narrative of the past. The allies argued through Nuremberg that Germany had betrayed the “West” in the form of a contractual breach of shared values. This raises the question as to how such a breach could be dealt with and translated in the realm of a criminal justice system. However, as Priemel rightly points out, it is questionable whether those that were considered to belong to the “West” also portrayed themselves as such, particularly considering Russia but also the south of Europe. Trying to establish a country’s guilt by focusing on the criminal accountability of those most responsible is a concept that as such has not survived in international criminal justice. While today’s courts that exercise jurisdiction over crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity still focus on the accountability of those most responsible, the concept of judging the history of an entire country has largely disappeared. The Nuremberg Trials did not judge the “Western betrayal”; they rather created it through the means of a criminal system.

We recommend “The Betrayal” especially for peace and justice scholars and for those interested in the possible functions and purposes of courts. Furthermore, legal practitioners and law students might find Kim Priemel’s discussion around the contextual aspects of the Nuremberg Trials useful in order to learn more about the historical context, development and genesis of international criminal law. As Priemel himself takes an interdisciplinary approach in analysing the Nuremberg Trials, “The Betrayal” also serves those with an academic interest in social sciences and international relations. Priemel stresses the importance of a collaboration between historians and legal practitioners and emphasises the need for each field to acknowledge and understand their counterpart’s approach.


Kerry-Luise Prior and Marjana Papa work at the Interdisciplinary Research Unit of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy as Project Officer and Head of Department respectively. More about the authors and the work of the Academy can be found at


Cite as: Kerry-Luise Prior / Marjana Papa, “Nuremberg Trials a Betrayal to History?”, Völkerrechtsblog, 20 February 2017, dos: 10.17176/20170220-075833.

Kerry-Luise Prior
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Marjana Papa
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