Reunions don't really celebrate the past; they celebrate themselves.
Some of the people who were part of the 13 Nuremberg war crime trials got together this weekend, 30 years after the trials shut down. Drexel Sprecher, a Nuremberg prosecutor who now lives in Chevy Chase, and the other organizers expected maybe 60 survivors. They got over 175.
There were interpreters, translators, secretaries, research analysts, legal aides, court reporters, prison guards, judges and lots and lots of lawyers. It took five months to find them all, and they came here from as far away as Arkansas, Colorado and Hawaii.
Mainly, they talked about who they are now, not who they were then. Thirty years is a long time, and the Nurembergers are in their 50s and 60s today, thicker and grayer, with a generation's worth of other concerns between them and those events of 1945 to 1949.
At the first trial, 19 of the 22 highest Nazi officials were convicted of crimes against international law, and 12 of these were condemned to death. In the later trials, some 200 others were sentenced to prison, and a few hanged. The judges and prosecutors came from the four victorious nations of World War II -- the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia.
The Nuremberg veterans saw a 70-minute film by Pare Lorentz on the famous first trail. A brilliant review of the Nazi conspiracy, its origins, its deeds and precisely what made it something beyond a failed military adventure, the film alternated shots of the courtroom process with scenes from the war and the death camps.
No one made a sound at the atrocities, which included an almost unwatchable shots taken through the porthole of a gas chamber. But during the court scenes the audience buzzed, hummed and pointed. They broke into strong applause when Gen. (now Prof.) Telford Taylor appeared as chief of counsel during the "doctors' trial" of medical experimenters.
Many of those present hadn't been at the first trial, but they did seem to spot some faces at the second one.
In any case, the past seemed a long way off.
At intermission the audience poured into the corridor of the Archives building to smoke and talk, mostly talk. You've never seen so many people so glad to find each other. Not particularly that they had known one another then -- a junior lawyer wouldn't normally come into contact with one of the white-helmeted soldiers guarding the prisoners, after all -- but simply that they shared this special memory.
They talked so hard it took 10 minutes to get them back in for the rest of the films. At the Washington Hotel reception, they talked so hard that dinner ran a half-hour late.
"And where are you living now?" the legal aide's wife asked the interpreter.
"And how many kids do you have?"
"Oh, you remember Victor, don't you?" the stenotyper cajoled the researcher. "He's a government lawyer now."
"Don't you think we should do this again? I mean, soon. It's wonderful."
And after dinner and the speeches, they started right up again, chattering away like a great big family at Thanksgiving.
It was a feeling of commitment, Taylor said, that brought them together. And he sketched quickly the controversies that have risen over the years about the whole question of Nuremberg.
Some have described it as a victors tribunal, but for him the point as its documentation of incredible events and the impact of that meticulous proof upon world opinion.
"Nuremberg was given credibility by the opportunities given to the defense."
he said. "The history of it is still not finished." He could not have foreseen back then the Eichmann trial in Israel or the German's own trials of their war criminals or the Rockler project here.
Walter J. Rockler, a prosecutor at Nuremberg, was there to tell about his project. He was taken a leave from his law firm to investigate for the Justice Department war criminals living in the United States, minor figures, mostly Eastern Europeans, who slipped into this country as displayed persons.
As it had to sooner or later, the Vietnam war come up. Taylor spoke of "the varying invocations of Nuremberg" by widely divergent groups, notably the draft resisters whose "Nuremberg Defense" was a claim that to fight a war they didn't believe in would be the same as the Nazis trying to absolve themselves by saying they were "just following orders."
But Secretary of State Dean Rusk also invoked Nuremberg when he accused the North Vietnamese of aggressive acts. And the North Vietnamese threatened their own form of war crime trial.
All these interpretations, Taylor concluded, are distortions of what actually happened at Nuremberg. "It has come to mean what people think happened there: It's not the bare record, but the ethos and the extrapolations with which we have to deal today."
Adrian S. Fisher, the former ambassador, Georgetown Law School dean and a special legal advisor at Nurember, agreed. "I see no reason to apologize for the decisions," he said. And for those who ask, What if it were you being put on trial? He would reply, "I'd think I was lucky to have a judicial process as fair and judicious as the Nuremberg trials were."
The final speaker, commentator Eric Sevareid, didn't attend the trials. "I guess they just figured, 'What the hell, one broadcaster's as good as another,'" for Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith did attend.
The Nuremberg prosecutors and judges were not self-appointed, Sevareid said: "History appointed them. It had to. They represented the conscience of the world."
The horrors documented at Nuremberg, he added, have helped make us far more aware of violence today, in a period nowhere near as violent as World War II.
Without that publicity, and without these horrors but just the opposite," he asked, would Americans have responded as they did to Vietnam? Would there be be an Amnesty International? Would the pope's visit have had the impact it did?
"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," he said, "and this is the age of inflation.