Post by Matt Seccombe, November 3, 2017
The Scanning Nuremberg series shares the observations and insights of Matt Seccombe, Nuremberg Trials Project Metadata Manager/Document Analyst, as he analyzes documents for digitization as part of the HLS Library’s Nuremberg Trials Project website.
During October I analyzed 197 documents (1045 pages) spanning five of the NMT Case 9 defendants (it helped that one defendant offered only one document before his case was severed due to illness).
Documentary infallibility? When the prosecutor cross-examined Sandberger about a promotion recorded in his SS personnel file, Sandberger claimed that the record was inaccurate in several respects. The prosecutor responded: “The memory of man might fail. Records, if they are not destroyed, stand.” Grand rhetoric, but those of us who do documentary history know that those records are often riddled with errors ranging from flawed information to omissions to simple typos, so they stand on shaky foundations.
The equivalency tactic: The defendants were charged with exterminating Communists and Jews, and in response two of them submitted wartime reports on Soviet “extermination units” and the capture of an “extermination battalion” composed of fanatic Communists and “very many Jews” whose task was to commit sabotage and kill German troops behind the lines. The implied argument was that the German-Soviet war was one of extermination and the einsatz operation was a sort of self-defense.
A vocabulary tactic: In an elaboration of the basic “superior orders” defense, Blume’s attorney attempted to dress up with argument with the doctrine of “unexpectability” (an echo of Cardozo’s term “foreseeability” to establish when liability applies in negligence cases). The claim was that the court could not hold someone responsible for committing a crime when it was “unexpectable” that he had a free choice of whether to do the deed or not, and it was “unexpectable” that a German could freely choose to disobey an order issued by Hitler. The point did not change the issue, and the polysyllables may have been counterproductive as a rhetorical flourish before notably skeptical judges.
The price of disobedience: One fact that worked against the defendants who used the superior orders argument, including the threat of execution for disobeying an order during the war (a threat that Himmler made explicit to his officers), was that none of them had been executed or even prosecuted for their attempts to avoid conducting mass executions. Defendant Rasch explained that the threat operated by a back channel. He had learned from the experience of other SS officers that if he had openly defied Hitler’s order, he would have been sent to a concentration camp “and then to one of the so-called ‘lost battalions’ (Verlorener Haufen) whose members were assigned to especially dangerous tasks and thus systematically annihilated.” There was good logic in the point, as no organization, certainly not the SS, wants to publicize the disloyalty of a senior official (as a trial and execution would have done); it is much better to quietly dispose of the problem. One of the defendants deemed “too soft” by the SS had indeed been stripped of his rank and was slated for reassignment on the Russian front.
More about the Nuremberg Trials Project:
Matt Seccombe’s work on the NMT 9 of the Nuremberg Trials Project has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
The HLS Library holds approximately one million pages of documents relating to the trial of military and political leaders of Nazi Germany before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) and to the twelve trials of other accused war criminals before the United States Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT). We have posted five trials so far (NMT 1 through NMT 4 and NMT 7) and have completed digitization of all the documents and transcripts.
We are now engaged in the process of analyzing, describing and making machine readable the remaining trials’ materials in preparation for posting them to the Web. We hope to complete this work as soon as possible based upon available funding. For more information about this project, please contact Jocelyn Kennedy.