Monday, March 05, 2018

A general explodes; Judge Wennerstrum carries on

Judge Charles F. Wennerstrum (Lucas County Historical Society collection)

Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor
We got to talking the other day about "famous" Lucas Countyans and kind of concluded that there weren't any, although fame is a relative state and some of our neighbors certainly have been --- and still are --- widely known in various circles.

One of those was Judge Charles F. Wennerstrum (1889-1986), a Chariton lawyer who was elected to the Iowa Supreme Court bench in 1941 and continued to serve, including two years as chief justice, until 1958. (Justices were elected, rather than appointed, at that time.)

In 1947, Judge Wennerstrum was named chief of a three-judge civilian judicial panel that presided over one of 12 trials in Nuremberg conducted in U.S. Military courts for lesser German military and civilian leaders charged with war crimes --- those farther up the hierarchy already had been tried before the International Military Tribunal in what generally are called the Nuremberg Trials. Judge Wennerstrum presided over one of what generally are called the "Subsequent Nuremberg Trials."

The trial, which commenced during July of 1947 and concluded in February of 1948, involved 12 German commanders accused of war crimes in the mass slaughter of civilians in Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia. Of the 12 defendants, one killed himself, one was given deferred status because of health problems, two were acquitted and eight were convicted --- and received terms ranging up to life imprisonment.


Judge Wennerstrum received brief worldwide attention after his trial concluded and he was asked by a reporter from The Chicago Tribune for his assessment of the trial process.

Wennerstrum was a plain-spoken man and expressed his opinion that justice had been done and agreed that the trials should continue. He did, however, suggest that the trials might better have been conducted before the international tribunal rather than in a U.S. military court.

"The victor is never an unbiased judge of war crime guilt," he said. "A neutral, third party should have held the trials."

He also suggested that some of the U.S. prosecutors were more interested in furthering their own careers than in seeing justice done. ''The trials were to have convinced the Germans of the guilt of their leaders,'' he said. ''They convinced the Germans merely that they lost the war to tough conquerors.''

Due to an apparent mix up in routing of the Tribune dispatch in Germany, it somehow fell before publication into the hands of Brigadier Gen. Telford Taylor, U.S. military chief prosecutor, who promptly issued a pre-emptive dispatch savaging Judge Wennerstrum through the Army Public Relations Office.

"Instead of making any constructive moves while you were here, you have chosen to give out a baseless, malicious attack during the last hours of your eight months stay and then leave town rather than confront those whom you have so outrageously slandered," Taylor was reported to have said. "I would use stronger language if it did not appear that your behavior arises out a warped, psychopathic mental attitude."

Not a productive response.

But one that certainly caught media attention worldwide and created, briefly, a sensation.


It was against that background that Judge Wennerstrum and his family arrived back home in Chariton during late February of 1948 and settled into their spacious home on Woodlawn Avenue, three blocks south of the square.

On Sunday, Feb. 29, Judge Wennerstrum settled down in the living room after dinner with John Baldridge, then at an early point in his long and distinguished career with the Chariton Newspapers and also a neighbor, to discuss the controversy and the judge's assessment of the general post-war situation in Germany. His report, which follows, appeared on the front page of The Leader of March 2:


By John Baldridge

Neighbors of Justice and Mrs. Charles Wennerstrum and daughter, Joan, weren't thinking primarily of the international attention the "Judge" has received in the last 10 days as they welcomed the family home from Germany this week. They were just glad to see them back. Neighbors of the Wennerstrums include about everyone in Lucas county.

But just to clear up the page 1 publicity our fellow townsman received across the nation, he was as surprised as the rest of us. Speaking quietly as usual he told of being met at Westover Field, Mass., by 15 newsmen from that portion of the country at the end of his air trip from Germany.

"It was the first time I knew that a controversy had been started by Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg. I have no apologies to make for my statements which concerned the legal procedure being used. There is no need for continuing the controversy. If some reforms should be effected by my comments, alright, and if they are not, that is the responsibility of others. I hope the talk soon dies down," he declared.

The Chariton man made it clear that there was no question but that the 10 German commanders tried before his tribunal of three judges deserved to be tried for their crimes and that the verdicts were just. Heaviest sentence given was life imprisonment and two were acquitted.

Affair Not Dead

That it will be a little while before the affair dies down was evident Saturday as some German lawyers used Wennerstrum's statements as the basis of an appeal to President Truman to insure fair trials. In addition the Chicago Tribune, where the original interview was printed, filed a complaint against Brig. Gen. Taylor on the charge that his assistants had "pirated a news dispatch." General Taylor issued his remarks taking violent exception to the views of the local man before the interview was published.

The Tribune said Taylor "personally used the purloined copy as the basis for a smear attack on Judge Wennerstrum."

Originally Judge Wennerstrum said the prosecutors (of whom Gen. Taylor was the chief) "failed to maintain an objectivity aloof from vindictiveness," and that the victor in any war "is not the best judge of war crime guilt."

A common comment in Chariton last week was to the effect that no one had higher ideals of justice than Judge Wennerstrum and the remainder of our visit Sunday bore out that fact.

"I wish everyone in the United States could go to Europe today," he stated. "And if they could they should talk to the man on the street. There would then be no question in anyone's mind that we cannot run away from the world's problems and that the solution to these problems must be based on the individual."

Must Accept Responsibilities

"Communism finds a fertile field only when people have no housing and never know where their next meal is coming from. We must accept our responsibilities and must realize that food alone except as a temporary measure is a waste.

"What the average man in Europe today wants is an opportunity to make a living, bring home a stable money that will provide food and house for his family. Today all Europe is 'disturbed.' Cities are jammed. All Germany's artisans and machinists can't possibly make an agrarian living as some propose.

"Our mililtary government is doing a marvelous job getting Germany operating. When you consider that all government, schools, railroads and industry was non-existent in the spring of 1945 you can appreciate the task that confronted those in charge.

Troubles Are Economic

"Nevertheless a newspaperman with whom I visited for several hours said, 'chances for a democracy in Germany are less now than in 1945.' He attributed this situation not to any one thing but to a thousand small things. Personally I feel the root is economic. A man is not particular about his government if his primary interest day after day is his next meal. Millions of Germans are in this predicament. Conditions today are similar to those that permitted the rise of Hitler.

"One thing that all Germans in western Germany fear above all else is that the Russians will take over. They may not care about the type of German government but they don't want the Russians in," he concluded.

Conclusions about the nations of Europe, their peoples and the vital necessity that this country aid them in every way possible weren't made by the Wennerstrums staying in Nuremberg.

During court recesses and over holidays they were able to visit nine countries, Fance, northern Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, England, Austria, Czechoslovakia and of course other portions of Germany.

During our visit, the Judge frequently quoted people with such vocations as taxi-drivers, trainman, student, guide, and storekeeper. It was plain that he had not formed his opinions from reading those of others or from talking to the high officials with whom he came in contact.

"Please make it plain," said the conscientious Judge, "that it was mostly hard work with the trials lasting from July 15 to Feb. 19 with 10,000 pages of transcript. But it was our good fortune to work in some highly enjoyable things.

"We found almost desperate conditions everywhere except in Denmark, Norway and Switzerland. England was better than the countries that had been occupied and fought over. A stabilized currency is an urgent need. Everywhere we were propositioned for dollars at black market rates. Of course our housing need is nothing compared to theirs," he said.

About this time Mrs. Wennerstrum came in from doing the dinner dishes and the interview turned into a questioning of the writer for local news.

In our Chariton neighborhood war criminal trials and the tribulations of a sick and weary Europe take back seat to the fact that the lights in the Wennerstrum home are on again.

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