Scanning Nuremberg: analyzing the prosecution documents in the Einsatzgruppen trial (NMT 9)

Post by Matt Seccombe, August 14, 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 July I completed the analysis of the prosecution documents in the Einsatzgruppen trial (NMT 9), amounting to 155 documents and 1070 pages of material, including document books, briefs against individual defendants, and the closing argument. Some time was spent enriching the analysis of the previous documents (analyzed in June) with information about two trial issues that were not identified in the indictment but that emerged from the evidence: the execution of the mentally ill, and the taking and killing of hostages.

The Ghost Order: Both prosecution and defense refer incessantly to the “Fuehrer Order,” which was Hitler’s order in mid-1941 to exterminate the Jews of eastern Europe as part of the war against the USSR. The prosecution emphasized this because it established what the Einsatzgruppen did: mass murder. The defendants emphasized it because it supported their argument that they had acted on a direct order from their commander in a war (the “superior orders” defense). However, no one entered a copy of this order in evidence, and it seems that no official record of it exists. Hitler apparently gave it in person to his senior military and SS commanders, who passed it along to the generals and the einsatz commanders. Meanwhile in July 1941 Goering ordered Heydrich to prepare “a complete solution of the Jewish question.”

The Order and disorder: As the campaign proceeded, the application of the order was chaotic, as the einsatz commanders executed an order that German administrators in the area did not comprehend. One administrator reported: SS security police arrived and announced “the liquidation of all Jews here in the town of Sluzk, within two days.” Jews and some non-Jews were seized, beaten, and shot. The population was frightened, and the security police looted the place. “In the future, keep this police battalion away from me by all means.”

Dissent and obedience: One einsatz commander, Strauch, faced criticism from a German officer that the extermination program “was unworthy of a German man and of the Germany of Kant and Goethe.” Strauch replied that “I did nothing but fulfill my duty” and complained about “having to perform this nasty job.” (The executioners often expressed this sort of self-pity.)

Hostages: This operation was not highlighted in the indictment but was familiar from the Hostage Case (NMT 7), set mainly in the Balkans, where the orders were a slightly modified version of those in the Soviet campaign, so the same pattern emerged. Einsatzgruppe D reported: “Hostages are taken in each new place, and they are executed on the slightest pretext.”

A Soviet interpretation: Since nearly all of the einsatz crimes were committed in places the USSR had occupied, the Soviets had evidence to offer from their own investigations, and two reports appeared in Case 9. They were extensive and detailed but had some particular qualities. The phrasing was lurid: “German fascist monsters [or “usurpers”],” and “Hitlerite hordes.” All the victims were identified as simply “peaceful Soviet citizens,” rather than Jews or Gypsies. And there was a particular charge about the Germans’ “butchery of Polish officers in the Katyn forest” and their “heinous fabrications of experienced falsifiers” trying to pin the blame on the Soviets.  (Of course, the massacre and the fabrication were both committed by the Soviets.)

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.

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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.

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