At the end of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, based on the third session of the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, Ernst Janning (played by Burt Lancaster), a German judge who has been condemned to life imprisonment, says to the American Chief Judge Daniel Haywood (Spencer Tracy), "We did not know it would come to this." Judge Haywood replies with the line that closes the film, "Herr Janning, it came to this the first time you condemned a man you knew to be innocent."
Ostensibly a story about the conflict between patriotism and justice, Judgment at Nuremberg is actually a stark reminder of the dangers of using anything other than human reason's discernment of the natural law to determine the standards against which to measure human behavior. The judges of the Third Reich had convinced themselves that, because their country was in serious danger (which it was), any expedient was justified to use in saving it, including judicial murder, if by doing so they could remove some individual or group which their leaders had identified as the source of the danger.
Maximilian Schell, in what may be his most brilliant, if unsympathetic role as defense counsel Hans Rolfe, in an almost fiendishly accurate portrayal of legal positivism bases his case on everything except the actual guilt or lack thereof of the defendants.Rolfe , in fact, does not even dispute their guilt. He admits it, as do the defendants themselves.Rolfe , however, diverts attention away from the question whether the laws that the judges of the Reich enforced were in conformity with the natural law, and raises the question as to whether the people who were put to death were guilty of breaking the unjust laws.
When Rolfe begins making his case that the judges of the Reich had to enforce unjust laws to save Germany, it becomes too much for Ernst Janning, portrayed as one of Germany's premier legal scholars and jurists before the war. In a scene that might be interpreted as a personal redemption, Janning repudiates Rolfe's defense argument and admits he knew he was doing wrong when he did it, that he despised himself for every unjust decision. Janning makes it clear that he acted not out of a sense of justice, but out of fear — for his country, but most of all for himself. Janning and the other German judges are sentenced to life imprisonment.
As the real German jurist Dr. Heinrich Rommen pointed out in his book on the natural law, however, positivism has become so engrained in western culture over the past eight centuries that it nearly always manages to overcome human reason and natural law concepts of right and wrong for the sake of expedience. As Chief Judge Haywood and Defense Counsel Rolfe are collecting their papers at the end of the trial, Rolfe bets Haywood that all the defendants will be released within five years, due to the perceived necessity of obtaining Germany's help in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Haywood compliments Rolfe on his handling of the case, predicts that he will go far . . . and declines to take the bet. At the end of the film, after Haywood has visited Janning as the American judge is on his way to the airport, a title card appears on the screen, confirming that all the defendants had indeed been released after serving only a few years of their life sentences.
While Judgment at Nuremberg used an obvious situation to make its point, the very obviousness of the point obscures it. People assume that what was done was wrong because "the Nazis" did it, not because it was wrong by nature itself. To this day we find many people asserting that there must be some flaw in the German national character that allowed them to give in to Hitler. They forget, ignore, or never knew that every tendency, even the philosophy itself that led to Hitler and the Holocaust is still with us today, and is much stronger and more pervasive now than then.
Basing political, social, or even individual acts on anything other than a sound understanding of the natural law derived from the common consent of all mankind as to what constitutes "good" inevitably results in disaster, regardless how much danger you might think you, your group, or your country is in. In the Gospel of John, the High Priest Caiphas is depicted as being concerned for the survival of the nation state of Judea . . . in which he was an important figure. In reference to Jesus, Caiphas declares that it is better that one innocent man should die than that the nation should perish, and is instrumental in trumping up charges against Jesus and in rousing the mob to demand Jesus' execution. Within a generation, Judea had ceased to exist.