Scanning Nuremberg: Notes from December 2022

Post by Matt Seccombe

December is a short work-month at HLS, so this is early. During the month I finished analyzing Ribbentrop’s last three defense document books, his attorney’s final argument, and the affidavit he prepared just before his execution for a Japanese diplomat facing trial at the IMT Far East. His documents covered 1940-41 with a now-familiar theme: how Germany was flanked by enemies (the USSR and America) and had to fight a defensive war on all sides.

Master and servant: One document that the tribunal excluded (as irrelevant) was Ribbentrop’s reflections on his time with Hitler from 1932 to 1945. He described Hitler as “strongly monomanic,” domineering, dismissive of differing opinions, uncompromising, and manipulative. Behind that tyrannical persona was the unknown; Hitler was “indescribably aloof.” As a human being, “I only knew very little about him, practically nothing at all.” “I never could come near him in a human sense.” Still, Ribbentrop did not abandon his loyalty, concluding “I do not know who he was – I only know one thing: that he was great!”

The strategist: In March 1941, with the European war well under way, Ribbentrop met with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Matsuoka. He advised his ally to be cautious in dealing with the USSR, as Stalin could not be trusted. He suggested that Japan had no need to fear the United States, which was not fully armed for war. Then he proposed a better target, which just happened to be the enemy that Germany had been unable to defeat, Britain: “Japan’s declaration of war on England should take the form of an attack on Singapore.” (It’s always convenient to get your ally to attack your enemy on a new front.)

The which conference?; One Ribbentrop document concerned a “Pan-American Conference” (no date), in which several nations in North and South America declared their plan, as neutral nations, to prevent hostile actions in their waters by belligerent nations. I wanted to confirm the author and establish a date, so I started with an internet search for the Pan-American Conference. That conference is well established but the timing of the major meetings (1938 and 1942) did not fit: in 1938 there were no belligerents and in 1942 some of the nations were not neutral, notably the US. With an author but no date I summarized the text (in the “descriptive title”) and moved on. The next document was Germany’s response to the conference (describing it as one-sided in favor of Britain and France since they had colonies and bases in the Americas), and it offered a clue by referring to the “Panama Declaration.” I went back to the first document and another search. The Panama Declaration led to the Panama Conference of September 1939. The Wikipedia entry for that contained a footnote with a link to a US State Department volume, and that book confirmed the text and provided a date for the declaration, so I revised the author (Panama Conference) and added the date. This four-step search more than doubled the time normally needed to analyze a short document, but the extra information was worth it. (Plus, I was curious.)

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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