Telford Taylor, Who Prosecuted Top Nazis At the Nuremberg War Trials, Is Dead at 90
By Richard Severo,, 24 May 1998
Telford Taylor, a principal prosecutor of high Nazi officials and leading German industrialists at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II, died May 22, 1998 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. He was 90.
His wife, Toby Golick, said the cause of death was a stroke. He lived for many years in Manhattan near Columbia University, where he taught law for many years.
As a young Army colonel at Nuremberg in 1945, Taylor helped write the rules for prosecuting Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and other top Nazis. He went on to become the trials' chief prosecutor and an authority on the laws of war.
In the decades after the Nuremberg trials, Taylor wrote and lectured extensively on the moral conduct of the United States and other nations and was an early opponent of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Among the concerns that beckoned him was what he saw as a continued reliance on war as an instrument of national policy and the commission of war crimes by the United States in Vietnam.
He began at the Nuremberg trials as an assistant to the chief counsel, the former United States Attorney General Robert H. Jackson. Jackson was the principal prosecutor leading Britain, France and the Soviet Union, as well as the United States, in the trials of Nazi leaders accused of crimes against humanity.
Some Nazis were tried in local courts all over Europe as countries began to be liberated. But as the war drew to a close, the Americans felt strongly that there should be an international tribunal made up of representatives of the four major Allies. It was not an easy thing to do. The Soviet Union, which had lost millions of its people during the war, wanted the Nazis executed with as little folderol as possible. This was Premier Josef Stalin's position, and it was not one that Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain was about to waste much energy arguing against; Churchill said that as far as he was concerned, the Nazi leaders could be shot without a trial as soon as they were caught "and their identity is established."
Taylor wrote that there were good reasons "for not letting the fate of the Nazis take an unguided course, once the British had abandoned their proposal to shoot some of the most hated out of hand." He noted that "a scattering of small trials would have carried no weight, whereas the world's eyes and ears would be fastened on a big international trial."
The American view prevailed. In defining the proceedings, Taylor and Jackson agreed that even in the valuation of the people who had a role in creating death camps, conducting "experiments" on unwilling subjects and securing slave labor for the war effort, there could be gradations of guilt. Both men had a keen sense of history, and both were determined that the universal loathing for what the Germans had done would not lead to proceedings that would further debase Western civilization nor damage the cause for which the Allies fought.
Taylor disclosed nearly 50 years after the war in his book "Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials" (1992) that before he became involved in the trials, he was, like most Americans, ignorant of the mass extermination camps in which millions of innocent civilians were killed. Nor, he said, did he really comprehend the full scope of the Holocaust until after the trials began. But even then, he did not want the trials to be seen as an act of vengeance.
From Taylor's perspective, the trials were intended not only to bring closure to the war and to punish those aggressors who were most responsible for crimes against humanity; they were also the first step in bringing Germany back into the family of nations and establishing a framework so that such a tragedy would not recur.
The initial indictments against 22 top Nazis resulted in 19 convictions, of whom 12 Nazis were condemned to death, including Göring, chief of the Luftwaffe, Hitler's air force. But Göring committed suicide by taking poison in his cell before he could be executed.
In 1946, when Jackson left his prosecutor's post, Taylor was promoted to brigadier general and named to succeed him. He soon won indictments against 23 German doctors and scientists, some of who had conducted brutal experiments on prisoners of war. He called them "infantile sadists" and charged that the only science they knew was apparently the "science of inducing death."
General Taylor also moved against several German industrialists, who were charged with violations of the international penal laws of war, as well as a number of Nazi judges, officers of the SS and other Nazi officials.
The second round of trials lasted until 1949 and was something of a disappointment to Taylor.
Alfred Krupp -- the main fabricator of large-caliber artillery, armor plate, submarines and warships for Hitler's war effort -- and the directors of the I. G. Farben Chemical Company were all acquitted of war crimes, like using slave labor, for lack of evidence. But these trials did result in the convictions of several Nazi judges, former Government officials, doctors and at least 13 officers in the SS. In all, 37 defendants received death sentences, 21 got long prison terms and 43 received shorter sentences. Many of the sentences were commuted later by John J. McCloy, who was High Commissioner for Germany from 1949 to 1952.
The Nazi receiving the longest sentence was Hess, an early Nazi to whom Hitler dedicated "Mein Kampf," and about whom there were questions of sanity. He was consigned to Berlin's Spandau Prison, where he remained for more than 40 years until he committed suicide there in 1987, when he was 93. There were occasions over the years when Taylor was asked what he thought of Hess being kept in Spandau by himself. (All the other war criminals there had either been released or had died.) He replied that "such long-continued incarceration, especially in a huge prison where he was the sole inmate, was a crime against humanity."
If the results were not all that Taylor wanted, he believed that the war crimes trials had been successful, if for no other reason than to give the concept of "crimes against peace" precedent and legal standing.
In the 1950's, Taylor became increasingly alarmed by the activities of Senator McCarthy, the Republican from Wisconsin who was attracting national attention for his assertions that the State Department had been infiltrated by Communists and that Communists had infiltrated America's most powerful institutions, including the Army.
Taylor gave a speech to cadets at West Point in 1953 in which he called Senator McCarthy "a dangerous adventurer." As for the various Congressional inquiries into the supposed Communist menace, Taylor said that the investigations did nothing to hurt the Communist cause but instead had become "a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents." He criticized both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens for not standing up "against the shameful abuse of Congressional investigating power."
At the time, Senator McCarthy was one of the most feared men in Washington. He immediately made one of his attacks, suggesting that, despite Taylor's unblemished record in Government and in the military and his hard work against the Nazis at Nuremberg, there was an "unresolved question of loyalty" showing in his Civil Service record. The Senator intimated that German Communists had infiltrated the office of the United States High Commissioner in Germany (thereby hinting at some unspecified relationship to Taylor) and that as a lawyer, Taylor had represented suspected Communists.
Taylor had, in fact, been a lawyer for Harry R. Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union, who was accused of lying when he swore in his 1945 naturalization hearing that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. Bridges was sentenced to five years in prison in 1950, but the Supreme Court later voided his conviction.
Undeterred by the Senator's attacks, Taylor continued his criticism of Senator McCarthy.
Telford Taylor was born on Feb 24, 1908, in Schenectady, N.Y., the son of John Bellamy Taylor, a physicist, and the former Marcia Estabrook Jones. On his father's side he was descended from Elder Estabrook of the Plymouth Colony and from Edward Bellamy, the 19th-century author who wrote the utopian romance "Looking Backward."
Taylor attended secondary schools in Schenectady, then enrolled in Williams College, from which he received his baccalaureate degree in 1928 and was highly regarded as a clarinetist in both classical and jazz idioms. He then went to Harvard Law School, where he made Law Review and received his degree in 1932. He was soon attracted to Government service.
After a brief stint in 1932 working for Judge Augustus Hand of New York's Second Circuit Court of Appeals, he worked for the Department of Interior as assistant solicitor (1933), the Agricultural Adjustment Administration as a member of the legal staff (1934), the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee as associate counsel (1935) and the Department of Justice as a lawyer in the claims division (1939-40).
In 1940 he received his most important job to date, becoming general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission, where he remained for two years, until he received a major's commission and went into Army Intelligence. In 1943, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and soon became military attaché in the United States Embassy in wartime London. He was made a full colonel in 1944.
Taylor went into the private practice of law after he returned to this country, but he accepted President Harry S. Truman's invitation to be administrator of the Small Defense Plants Administration after the Korean War began. He remained in that post for more than a year, overseeing the production of arms and matériel needed for the war.
Spurred by the McCarthy phenomenon, he wrote "Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations," which was published in 1955 and which traced the history of Congressional investigations from 1791. Among his other books were "Sword and Swastika" (1952), "The March of Conquest" (1958) and "The Breaking Wave" (1967).
In the mid-1960's, as the Vietnam War became increasingly controversial, he declined to lend his name to a statement signed by most other professors at Columbia Law School, in which they said the student protests there exceeded the "allowable limits" of civil disobedience. Taylor said he did not think the statement was useful and in any event, he was then defending people in Boston who were charged with conspiring to counsel young men to violate the draft laws.
As the war in Vietnam dragged on, Taylor called on President Richard M. Nixon and Congress in the summer of 1971 to appoint a national commission to investigate the origins and conduct of the conflict. He thought the publication of the Pentagon Papers made it possible and even advisable to have a broad, high-level inquiry. In 1973, he went to Hanoi with Joan Baez, the folk singer, Michael Allen, associate dean of the Yale Law School, and Barry Romo, coordinator of a group of Vietnam veterans opposed to the war. He visited prisoner of war camps there.
He felt that the bombing of Hanoi in 1972 was "immoral and senseless" and that the court-martial of Lieut. William Calley, who led American troops who massacred civilians at My Lai, did not go far enough. Lieutenant Calley's guilt should not have made him a scapegoat, said Taylor, who noted that punishment did not go out to higher-ranking military and civilian officials responsible for the training of troops, the overall conduct of the war and the fact that there was any war at all.
Taylor, who had been a full professor of law at Columbia since 1962, was named Nash Professor of Law there in 1974. Two years later, he also joined the faculty of Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law.
He continued writing and teaching and in 1980, his book "Munich: The Price of Peace" was named the best work of general nonfiction by the National Book Critics Circle. In the 1980's, he also extended his law practice to sports, and was appointed a special master to resolve disputes in the National Basketball Association.
He never lost interest in the moral conduct of the Government and in 1986, in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair, asserted that neither Adm. John Poindexter of the Navy nor Col. Oliver L. North of the Marines should have taken the Fifth Amendment when questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
When the war in Bosnia yielded new evidence of genocide, Taylor said such inhumanity could and should be the basis for criminal indictments.
Taylor's 1937 marriage to the former Mary Eleanor Walker ended in divorce. She died in 1982. Their children are Joan Taylor of Arcata, Calif.; Ellen Taylor of Petrolia, Calif. and John Bellamy Taylor of Manhattan. In 1974, Taylor married Toby Golick and their children are Benjamin Wait and Samuel Taylor of Manhattan, and Ursula Rechnagel of Denmark. He is also survived by eight grandchildren.
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© 1998 by Neil Mishalov