Scanning Nuremberg: jokes and consequences, illness and honor, and more

Post by Matt Seccombe, November 30, 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 November, I worked through the papers of five defendants, amounting to 157 documents and 724 pages. For those tracking the numbers, the document and page numbers are lower than in previous months, for two reasons: several work days “lost” to holidays, and diseconomies of scale. Some of the defendants offered few documents but spent several days testifying on the stand, so that I had to spend a lot of time skimming through the transcript for information, particularly to find where documents were entered and where previously-entered documents (notably prosecution exhibits) were discussed by the defendants in direct examination and cross-examination by the prosecutors. Those second and third appearances of documents are noted in the database entries for those documents, sometimes with more information for the analysis. As the defendants follow one another, their arguments became highly repetitive, but additional light sometimes appears, as well as curious moments.

Joke and consequences: Hans Steinwede’s affidavit recounted that in 1943 he had travelled to get spare parts but left his ration card behind, so he was unable to get food. Hungry and frustrated, he exclaimed, “There goes the house-painter from Austria, starts a war and we have got no chow; while Goering is getting fatter and fatter.” Making fun of Hitler was not a smart move, and he was reported. He was sentenced to 21 days in jail on bread and water, and considered himself lucky since one of the defendants had protected him from a harsher penalty.

Illness or honor?: Defendant Biberstein described a military officer he had dealt with, commenting, “He wanted to earn his sore throat.” The tribunal obviously did not understand the phrase, so the attorney explained that for the officer, a sore throat meant the Iron Cross medal, which was worn around the neck.

Metaphors: The defense attorneys used various images to emphasize the role of the defendants and the situation they faced. Braune’s attorney characterized him, accurately if not imaginatively, as “no more than a small cog in a large machine.” In contrast, Ott’s attorney painted the big picture of the German-Soviet war in a remarkable sentence: “All conceptions of the occident concerning man and state, space and time, technology and war and might and right were exploded in this unfathomable land of released demons.” (This argument was backed up by more prosaic evidence: the Hitler/Keitel “terror order” of July 1941 stating that the security forces, e.g., the einsatzgruppen, in the occupied territories were not to operate by “legal sentences”; security could be achieved only if “the occupying power spreads a terror which alone is capable of depriving the population of every wish to resist.”)

The relevance rule: After the prosecution objected to much of Nosske’s defense case on the grounds that it was not relevant to the charges, his attorney appealed to the tribunal, and the presiding judge assured him that “We will allow you to discuss anything and everything with the exception of the social life of the penguins in the Antarctic zone.” The judges were tired of excessive detail and long explanations, however, so the attorney was asked to “rein in” his client so “that he does not gallop off into fields of unnecessary detail.” (The defense attorneys were not alone in their weakness for metaphors.)

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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