Scanning Nuremberg: Ring of Silence

Post by Matt Seccombe, October 2, 2018

During September I worked through the final IMT prosecution documents covering count 2 (aggression), including the war against the US, and began the documents for counts 3 and 4 (war crimes and crimes against humanity, which were presented together), skipping forced labor (those documents are missing from our set), covering the concentration camp system, and the beginning of the persecution and extermination of the Jews (about which, more next month). The document analysis covered 88 documents and 601 pages of material. A lot of “overhead” time was required to track the documents in the transcript and get the relevant files identified and sorted out.

War against the US: Germany’s declaration of war on 11 December 1941 attributed the war to acts of aggression by the US navy, presumably in the course of the US effort to assist Britain. There was no mention of Japan or the events of December 7. Privately, however, Hitler expressed his approval to the Japanese a few days later: “one should strike—as hard as possible, indeed—and not waste time declaring war.” The Germans continued to press Japan to adopt a strategy that would help Germany: to attack the USSR from the east, which would indirectly lead to a British collapse and the isolation of the US. (The US and Britain engaged in similar strategic triangulation late in the war, urging the USSR to attack Japan, which it did at the end of the war.)

Evidence from the camps: The US prosecutor presented one particularly vivid exhibit from Buchenwald, as recorded in the transcript: “This exhibit, which is on the table, is a human head with the skull removed, shrunken, stuffed, and preserved. The Nazis had one of their many victims decapitated, after having had him hanged apparently for fraternizing with a German woman, and fashioned this terrible ornament from his head.”

The ring of silence: In the Justice Case (NMT 3) some defendants claimed that they had no knowledge of crimes committed in SS camps because the SS surrounded them with a “steel ring of silence.” This began at Dachau in 1933, where the commandant’s regulations provided that “agitators” would be hung. Agitators included anyone who “collects true or false information about the concentration camp . . ., receives such information, buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp . . . conceals it in clothing or other articles, throws stones and other objects over the camp wall containing such informations . . . [or] seeks contact with the outside by giving light or other signals . . . .” The punishment reflects the brutality of the regime, but the list of prohibited actions also suggests the determination and ingenuity of the inmates who tried to break through the secrecy.

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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