Scanning Nuremberg: Beginning analysis of the Einsatzgruppen Case (NMT 9)

Post by Matt Seccombe, July 8, 2017

Editor’s note: we have some new posts to share in our Scanning Nuremberg series, and we’ll be playing a bit of catchup over the next few weeks. 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

In June the trial document analysis work resumed, with NMT 9, the Einsatzgruppen Case, on the agenda. I chose this trial because it presents a subject the other cases have not so far covered: genocide. The Einstazgruppen (groups A, B, C, and D) were created by the SS in the summer of 1941 to proceed into eastern Europe along with the army on the Russian front in order to assist the military, secure territory behind the front, and eliminate “enemy populations” including Jews, Communists, Gypsies (or Romanis), and other groups. In two years, working along a line from the Baltic territories, western Russia, the Ukraine, and on to Crimea, the groups killed approximately one million people, precisely reporting their work in regular reports to Security Police headquarters.

After spending some time organizing and exploring the document files and the trial transcript and gathering background information, I started document analysis in mid-June and worked through 115 documents amounting to over 600 pages of material, including the indictment(s), arraignment, prosecution opening statement, and six document books of prosecution evidence.

1939 and 1941 agendas: When the war began in 1939 Heydrich sent an initial Einsatz operation eastward with instructions on “the Jewish question in the occupied territory.” Somewhat surprisingly, the most urgent factor was safeguarding Germany’s “economic interest,” including the maintenance of Jewish businesses that were necessary for the local economy and the military. “The total measures planned (i.e. the final aim),” he noted obscurely, “are to be kept strictly secret.” Those “measures” were apparently discussed, but not recorded. In 1941, the agenda changed, or at least became much clearer. Ohlendorf, one of the group commanders, was told by Himmler in June 1941 that “an important part of our task consisted of the extermination of Jews—women, men, and children—and of Communist functionaries.” (Among other things, this means that the notorious Wannsee conference (January 1942) did not initiate the Holocaust but rather confirmed it and extended it from the eastern front to the whole German domain.)

Humane executions: None of the group leaders disputed the order to conduct mass executions (though one apparently obtained a transfer to avoid them), and they reported that they followed the order with “unabated severity.” In one area 23,600 Jews were shot in three days. But some who regarded this as part of the war effort insisted that they conducted the executions “in a military and humane way.” Like soldiers, they killed their enemies but did not torture them. One clarified that this was done to avoid a “moral strain” on the executioners (not the victims).

Connections with other trials: While the Case 9 indictment focused on genocide, the documents gradually reveal subjects that we record as “trial issues,” including those that overlap with other trials. Thus we can enrich the analysis of one trial with what we find in another. For example, the mass murder of Gypsies in Case 9 feeds back into Case 7 (which focused on the German army in the Balkans), and the arrest and execution of hostages, the primary charge in Case 7, also emerges as an issue in Case 9. The mass execution of the mentally ill in the USSR, though not mentioned in the indictment, emerged as an issue in the documents, one that is comparable to but not the same as the euthanasia program covered in the Medical Case.

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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