Scanning Nuremberg: Notes from June 2023

Post by Matt Seccombe

During June I analyzed the defense documents of Walther Funk and one-third of the documents of Admiral Doentiz. This ended one year’s work on the IMT following the COVID related “pause,” and also one year with the defense material. During the year I worked through the documents of defendants Frank, Frick, Funk, Goering, Hess, Kaltenbrunner, Keitel, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Schacht, and Streicher, amounting to slightly more than 1000 documents. One discovery was that it takes considerably longer to work through the trial transcript to find when defense documents were entered (or not) and how they were used, compared to the prosecution. So the transcript work for the defendants tends to lag behind the document analysis.

The content is not always the point: Funk’s case included four newspaper reports on a trade visit he made to the Balkans as economics minister in 1938, describing his proposal for cooperative economic development in the region. I analyzed the documents accordingly, with the “descriptive title” field including a brief statement of his economic plan. When I worked through the transcript for Funk’s in-court presentation I found that his attorney stated that those documents were presented simply as evidence that Funk was out of Germany at that time and so could not have attended a certain war-economy planning meeting held by Goering. I returned to those database entries and entered that information in the “notes” field.

The ships and the crews: Doenitz offered the record of a meeting that he and Admiral Raeder had with Hitler in May 1942, when Doenitz called for the use of a device that would enable precise targeting of torpedoes so that a U-boat could strike a ship at its most vulnerable point, causing it to sink quickly. Beyond sinking the Allied ship, this offered “the great advantage that the crew will not be able to rescue themselves” for lack of time. This “greater loss of crews” would balance out “the great American construction program.” A plan to increase Allied casualties would not seem to help much as defense evidence, but Doenitz and Raeder argued that they were trying to forestall Hitler from ordering that U-boats should follow up a torpedo attack on Allied ships by surfacing and using machine guns to kill the survivors in the water and in lifeboats. Hitler had suggested this in an earlier meeting with the Japanese ambassador, arguing that while the United States could replace sunken ships rapidly given its manufacturing capacity, it would have a much harder time replacing experienced crews. Doenitz knew that killing a shipwrecked crew was a violation of international law and naval tradition; he also knew that Hitler didn’t care about that. If the crew went died in the first attack, the legal issue would not arise.

Mixed signals: The aggressive policy was reflected in an order of October 1943 for U-boats to sink the rescue ships that accompanied Allied convoys, since “annihilation of ship-crews is desired.” Without the rescue ship, fewer shipwrecked men would survive. One commander admitted that he had attacked a shipwrecked crew, but insisted he had done it for tactical reasons and not under orders. And 67 former U-boat commanders declared that they had never been ordered to attack shipwrecked crews, were trained to “respect the written and unwritten law of the sea” and, as a matter of honor, “to conduct the combat at sea in a chivalrous manner.”

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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