The Nuremberg Trials:  Newspaper Accounts

Telford Taylor, key U.S. prosecutor at Nazi war trials, dies

by The Associated Press
May 24, 1998

NEW YORK - Telford Taylor, who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and helped lay the foundation for the principle that governments must be held accountable for mistreating their citizens, died yesterday. He was 90.

Mr. Taylor, who also was a law professor, author and activist, suffered a series of strokes earlier this month, according to a friend, Jonathan Bush, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Mr. Taylor died in New York.

At the close of World War II, the victorious Allies - the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France - captured Hermann Goering and 20 other leading Nazis and set up the tribunal in the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg in southern Germany. It was Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Mr. Taylor recalled, who demanded that the Nazi leaders be tried rather than executed outright, as some Allied leaders wanted.

Prosecutors accused them of shattering civilized standards by organizing or abetting atrocities and laying waste to Europe.

The 21 captured Nazis were put on trial Nov. 20, 1945, along with Hitler deputy Martin Bormann, who couldn't be found and was tried in absentia. Nineteen were convicted in the 10-month trial. Twelve were sentenced to death; of them, Goering committed suicide, 10 others were hanged in October 1946, and Bormann was never found. The seven others got prison sentences.

Mr. Taylor was a top assistant at the trial. Promoted to brigadier general, Mr. Taylor then became chief prosecutor when nearly 200 more Nazis - death squad members, industrialists and others - were tried in a dozen subsequent trials at Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949. Of them, about 150 were convicted.

"The crimes of these men were not committed in rage, nor under the stress of sudden temptation," Mr. Taylor said in 1947 at the opening of one of the trials of German war industrialists. "One does not build a stupendous war machine in a fit of passion, nor an Auschwitz slave factory during a passing spasm of brutality."

At a trial of doctors and scientists accused of brutal medical experiments, Mr. Taylor said the court had the obligation to "set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts."

Mr. Taylor described his experiences in his 1992 book, "The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir."

The trials proceeded despite differing opinions among the Allies about how to proceed, the absence of legal precedents for much of what they were doing, and the question of whether it was really right for the victors in the war to try the losers.

Mr. Taylor concluded that despite the difficulties, the trials were a success, but suggested that any future war-crimes trial must look at the actions of the winners as well as the losers. "The laws of war are not a one-way street," he said.

Wrote The Nation magazine in 1995: "The human rights movement owes much of its legal foundation to the work of Gen. Telford Taylor . . . Nuremberg gave legitimacy to the concept that the world had something to say about how governments treat their own citizens. In 1950 the United Nations codified Nuremberg's most important statements into seven Nuremberg Principles, which have since been adopted by the legal systems of almost every major nation."

During the 1950s, Mr. Taylor, back in civilian life, spoke out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist activities and defended some of those targeted by him. His book "Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations," criticized McCarthy's tactics.

He later wrote an anti-Vietnam War book, "Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy," and worked to help Jews who were imprisoned in the Soviet Union.

He even was a special master for the courts in a case involving the National Basketball Association's labor agreement.

Mr. Taylor also was a professor emeritus at Columbia University School of Law and a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale law schools.

Mr. Taylor was born in 1908 in Schenectady, N.Y. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932.

Back to Famous Trials Homepage