Scanning Nuremberg: Initial Impressions from the Hostage Case

Post by Matt Seccombe, October 7, 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 September was to begin the analysis of documents for Case 7, the Hostage Case, which concerns (primarily) the extraordinarily dirty war between the Germans and the partisans in Yugoslavia, with the execution of captured fighters, the arrest and killing of hostages in reprisal measures, and the use of concentration camps and forced labor. Since I began the work in late August after finishing the Justice Case, and the early prosecution files are the best-organized portion of the set, I was able to analyze 251 documents, amounting to 1594 pages.

Superior orders: In this case the issue of “following orders” was literally true. In 1941 Hitler ordered that the war in the East (Russia and the Balkans) was to be conducted by “the spreading of such terror by the occupying forces . . . [so as] to eradicate every inclination to resist amongst the population.” This was put into execution by an order from General Keitel, applying to Serbia and elsewhere: for every soldier killed, 100 civilians were to be killed. Partisans captured in the field were to be shot immediately, not treated as POWs. The laws of war were to be ignored.

Word of the month: Francs-tireurs. This started as a puzzle, being the term Germans frequently used in their reports to describe their opponents, and proved quite illuminating. It isn’t a Balkan term, obviously, but a French term dating back to the Franco-Prussian war (and earlier), meaning “free shooters,” describing irregular soldiers who fought alone or in small groups, engaging in sabotage and sniping. The Germans in that war considered these fighters to be criminals rather than soldiers, acting outside the rules of warfare and not entitled to the protection of the laws of war. In addition, the Germans held local villages responsible for supporting the attacks, killing civilians in reprisal. This is exactly what the German army did in 1941-45 in southeastern Europe to “partisan” fighters and local communities, as a matter of military doctrine, and not directly as a matter of Nazi ideology. While the killing of civilian hostages was clearly a war crime, the status (and rights) of partisans was still an unsettled issue in the law of war at the time, and this was a key issue in Case 7.

Military doctrine adjusted for genocide: While the attitude toward partisans was traditional for the German military, the application in World War II quickly took on Nazi overtones. Applied to Serbs, the rationale was that the “Balkan mentality” held little value for life, hence the need to kill 100 Serbs to match one German casualty. The systematic selection of Jews and gypsies for reprisal killings made clear that they were killed because of who they were, not what they did. The military doctrine of reprisals provided a cover for the genocide.

An executioner reflects: In October 1941, Lt. Walther submitted his “Report concerning the shooting to death of Jews and Gypsies.” His squad carried out the killings quickly; he noted that the Jews died calmly while the gypsies panicked. His soldiers were not disturbed the first time. “The second day, however, it had become noticeable that one or the other did not have the nerve to carry out shooting to death for a longer period of time. My personal impression is that one does not develop any psychological inhibitions during the shooting to death. However, these appear if one contemplates it quietly after a few days in the evening.”

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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