Scanning Nuremberg: Notes from September 2022

Post by Matt Seccombe

In September I completed analysis of the defense documents for Rudolf Hess and began those for Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister. We now have just over 4000 documents in the system for the IMT, ca 3800 for the prosecution and 200 for the defendants so far.

A variety of strategies: Goering, the lead defendant, offered few documents and instead took the stand to argue his case—or at least to secure his reputation as a leader. He dueled with the prosecutors, at one point brushing off a point made by Robert Jackson, who lost his temper and threw a tantrum about it in court the next day. Hess made three decisions: He decided (incorrectly) that the tribunal had no authority over him, that his conduct in the regime was protected by government immunity (also incorrect), and that he only had to defend himself on the charge of waging aggressive warfare; due to the first belief, he did not testify. Ribbentrop chose the documentary approach, deluging the court with nine document books, offering twice as many documents as Goering and Hess combined. He apparently hoped that the paper record would show that he had worked to keep the peace or at least had done no harm.

The special mission: Hess’s argument that he was a peace-maker highlighted one of the strangest events of the war. On May 10 1941 he got in a plane, flew to Scotland, and parachuted to the ground. When taken into custody he said he was on a “special mission” and asked to see the Duke of Hamilton. After the duke spoke with him, a Foreign Office official went to clarify the mission. Hess declared that he was presenting Hitler’s strategic views, with the starting point being Germany’s decisive military superiority, so that Britain needed to accept a peace in which Germany would have a “free hand” in Europe and Britain would retain its empire. The British declined to negotiate but sent a senior official, John Simon, the next month for a long discussion, which yielded a 71-page transcript, probably to see whether Hess would reveal any useful information. Pressed on the subject of Germany’s air force, Hess generalized that Goering’s command numbered in the hundreds of thousands of men and was growing on a “large scale.” He concluded, “It is well known here also that Goering personally exists on a very large scale.” Simon followed up: “He’s a very large man!”

The colonial issue: Hess tried to argue that Germany had made legitimate efforts before the war to repair the damage done by the Versailles settlement, with considerable support for its case in the United States, Britain, and Europe. The court excluded this document book completely, as irrelevant to the trial issues, but some of the material is revealing. The heavy reparations demanded of Germany were the primary target, but another was the question of restoring the German colonies that had been given up, notably in Africa. Regaining the colonies would provide essential economic resources for Germany, the argument went, and it was also a matter of national pride. Britain’s colonial minister conceded in 1937 that no one could doubt Germany’s ability to “rule the natives.” And A. A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh) argued that if restoring Tanganyika to Germany would enable a peaceful settlement, blocking it would be “a criminal stupidity.” Notably absent was any discussion of whether the Africans wanted this. They had no voice in the matter.

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 [email protected].

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