Scanning Nuremberg: A smoking gun and the electrical wolf solved

Post by Matt Seccombe, originally written May 4, 2015

Scanning Nuremberg 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

The task for April was to analyze the defense documents of Ernst Lautz, who had a lot to answer for as the chief prosecutor of the notorious People’s Court. He answered at great length. In April I worked through 17 files, 287 documents, and approximately 900 pages. The document count set a monthly record but the page count was below average as Lautz’s attorney submitted many 1 or 2 page exhibits and the economies of scale went into reverse.

Routine under the shadows: Lautz’s primary argument was that he did ordinary business in a legitimate court. The People’s Court was not a Nazi invention; it was established in the 1920s to deal with a wave of political violence, and it followed ordinary though speeded-up procedures. High-profile political cases were managed by the Minister of Justice (the also-notorious and deceased Thierack) and decided by the judges, leaving Lautz (he argues) as the mere functionary in the middle. Much of his evidence seems calculated to show how boring his work was.

Even the boring documents carry a message when patterns emerge, and one was in the routine lead-in language for minor changes in law and procedure: All the changes were noted as the product of negotiations between Justice, the Reich Chancellery, and the Party Chancellery—which meant that everything went through Martin Bormann, Hitler’s deputy, who also had a veto over every appointment and promotion. The whole ministry operated under Party supervision.

A smoking gun: Amidst all the bland routine in Lautz’s material, one striking legal change sticks out, years before Hitler’s 1942 announcement of a future complete Nazification of German law. In 1939 Hitler announced that he had the legal authority to make an “extraordinary objection” to any judicial decision he disagreed with, thus overturning it. In case anyone missed the point, Judge Freisler published a memo explaining that German law no longer depended on traditional sources; it now depended on Nazi policy and Hitler’s wishes. In short, the rule of law was over.

Searching for what isn’t there: Given the necessity of finding where trial documents appeared in the trial, I continued to try to “map” the 11,000 page transcript, first for the cases of all the defendants (when they took the witness stand and made their case) and then for all their document books. Only the transcript can tell us whether a document was offered as an exhibit, whether it was accepted or not, what the exhibit number is (if accepted), and what errors might have been corrected when the document was introduced and discussed. Two defendants (Nebelung and Petersen) proved to be quite elusive. Finally I stumbled on a single sentence where the judges said they understood that the two were not going to testify at all—so I could stop looking. Fortunately I’ve found where their attorneys submitted their documents as evidence. However, most of defendant Mettgenberg’s document books haven’t been located in the transcript yet. After searching through the expected locations, it’s a matter of flipping through several subsequent transcript volumes, looking for the unaccounted-for evidence.

The wolf tracked down? Having noticed the puzzling phrase “electrical wolf” previously, I mentioned it recently to a German colleague, who said “That’s what we call a paper shredder.” It’s a plausible explanation for the phrase, which appears at the end of a secret legal draft.

More about the Nuremberg Trials Project:

The Harvard Law School 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 already digitized NMT 1 (U.S.A. v. Karl Brandt et al.), NMT 2 (U.S.A. v. Erhard Milch), and NMT 4 (U.S.A. v. Pohl et al.), and we’re in the process of digitizing our remaining holdings. We expect to have NMT 3 (The Judges’ Trial) completed and available to the public by the summer of 2015.

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.

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