Scanning Nuremberg: beginning analysis of the defendants’ documents

Post by Matt Seccombe, September 7, 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 August I completed the analysis of the tribunal judgment and began work on the defendants’ documents, amounting to 165 documents and 1063 pages of material. I have now completed the documents of three of the defendants, in the order they presented their cases in the trial. One challenge in the process is that, so far, none of the defendants had their evidence ready to offer as exhibits when they testified (as was usual in other NMT cases), so I often don’t know whether a given document was actually offered and accepted (or rejected). Finding this information depends on scanning the whole transcript beginning to end, which makes it prudent to work on the defendants’ cases in the order they testified (rather than alphabetical order), so that I can pick up that document-entry information as it appears and add it to the database either while I do the primary document analysis or afterward, going back and completing the record.

Ohlendorf and the Order: Otto Ohlendorf, the lead defendant, resembled Minister Schlegelberger in the Justice Case in that he was often regarded as a “tragic figure,” a highly civilized man who found himself in a senior position in a terrible regime, forced to do its bidding. His elaborate defense emphasized this, presenting Ohlendorf as an honorable police official with humanist convictions, including an interest in anthroposophy. He believed in “volkdom” as a matter of ethnic or racial identity, in which each nationality deserved autonomy, not as a doctrine of supremacy of one race over others. He opposed Hitler’s wartime order to execute enemy populations, he said, but he enforced it because it was his superior’s command. The prosecution tested this claim in an unsettling cross-examination: If Hitler had ordered him to execute his own family, would he have done it? After evading the issue for some time, he answered: yes.

The decent chap: Like Ohlendorf, most defendants argued that they had followed superior orders, which they disapproved of but could not evade. In fact, they themselves were good men, they claimed, completing the argument that they were not personally responsible for the einsatz operation. Apart from the legal argument, the plea of superior orders, this subject leads to the recurring question, in all of the trials, of what sort of men these were, and how they could do what they did. Erwin Schulz’s case consisted almost entirely of this “good character” defense, including an affidavit reporting that “people always said he was a decent chap.” Most of this evidence was tedious, but some offered statements by Schulz that do suggest his character and his reaction to his situation. After his einsatz service, he headed a security police training program, where he once described what had been done in Russia. The killing of Jews had been done “in accordance with orders,” but still it was “a frightful business.” If any of the officers who had participated in it “boasted of these deeds,” he said, he would expel them “as unsuited from the point of character.” He once described the role of a security police officer more generally: “We want to remain decent and upright people. Let us look into the mirror every day and find out whether we can still look in our eyes.”

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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