Scanning Nuremberg: Notes from November 2022

Post by Matt Seccombe

During November I worked through three of Ribbentrop’s nine defense document books, two of them on Poland, to pin the blame for the war on the Poles, and one on the expansion of the war in 1940, blaming the “encirclement” strategy of Britain and France.

In a literal sense Poland provided considerable evidence for Ribbentrop’s case, as there was no shortage of hostility on both sides. One sign appeared in my geographical dictionary when I needed to look up place names: one name would be German (eg, Danzig) and its match in Polish (Gdansk). Germans were angry about the territory and population lost to Poland in the Versailles settlement, while Poles were angry about German interference and new citizens who failed to “Polonize.” By February 1939, Ambassador von Moltke reported to Berlin about demonstrators in Warsaw shouting “Down with Hitler” and “Long Live Polish Danzig.” Competing claims and provocations in Danzig led to mobilization by both sides in August 1939, providing Hitler with the cover story for his long-planned invasion.

Going off script: Ribbentrop tried to portray German foreign policy as defensive rather than aggressive. Thus in his statement on the German-Italian treaty of alliance in May 1939 he initially described the “Rome-Berlin Axis” as a reaction to the “carpetbaggers” of Versailles and the attempt by the “so-called democracies” to “encircle them again.” But then he shifted from defense to triumphalism: Germany and Italy were striving for “the place to which they are entitled in the world, their proper share of the goods of this earth,” and they were ready “to break every enemy with their combined strength.”

The poor painter: While determined to conquer Poland in any case, Hitler tried to avoid a war with Britain, which had pledged to support Poland if it was the victim of aggression. So in late August 1939 he summoned Ambassador Henderson, regarded as a “useful idiot” for Germany’s cause. Hitler told him, Henderson reported, that “he was by nature an artist, not a politician,” and that if the issue was settled “he would end his life as a painter and not a warmonger.” Henderson continued to promote a diplomatic settlement while the armies mobilized.

“A different matter”: In November 1939 the British and French prime ministers, Chamberlain and Daladier, and their military commanders met to consider a plan prepared by the RAF. (The record was founded by the Germans when they occupied France.) Chamberlain explained that the RAF believed its fleet of heavy bombers could destroy Germany’s industrial core in the Ruhr basin by targeted low-altitude bombing, day and night, for two or three months. Casualties would be very high, both for RAF crews and German civilians on the ground. Chamberlain and Daladier agreed that moral questions were to be “put aside.” Daladier felt that the chances of success were not yet high enough. Both noted the effect such bombing would have on world opinion, notably in the US. Retaliating for a German bombing campaign would be one thing, Chamberlain said, but “it is a different matter to initiate such warfare oneself.” Daladier proposed to “leave to the Germans the initiative and responsibility for having been the first . . . in attacking towns and factories and in hitting women and children.”

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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