Researching the Nuremberg trials

In this week’s blog post Emma Chadwick discusses her experience researching the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials for her Master’s thesis.

As part of my Masters course in History, I have spent my summer writing my final thesis. Though longer than my undergraduate dissertation, the project has been far more enjoyable because I have had the opportunity to use original manuscripts held in the University’s Special Collections. In particular, I have been using the collection MS 200 which contains documentation from the Nuremberg trials and the subsequent, International Military Tribunals (1946 – 47).

The core of my project is examining the relationship between collective memory and Holocaust trials and therefore, I have been comparing the Nuremberg trials and the Eichmann trial (1961). Part of my interest in this particular topic came from an earlier visit to the archives to view a series of tapes that contained survivor testimony. I was struck by the trauma and devastation of the survivor more than I had been by literature I had read. As we are now approaching a time when soon there will be no more survivor’s left to bear witness, I wondered how we would represent the Holocaust in the future. Having already done some research in the Nuremberg trials, I found there was an absence of survivor voice and struggled with the silence within the trial. Though the defence brought witness testimony, survivors did not come to court but were asked to provide affidavits as sources of evidence. I questioned how possible it was that a Holocaust narrative could be formed just by using the Nazi documentation that had been left behind. By contrast, the Eichmann trial had over 120 witnesses speak about what they had experienced leaving those within the courtroom horrified. Therefore, I decided that as the resources were right in front of me, I could look at collective memory in both trials by examining the evidence presented at them along with the original transcripts.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the amount of material in the archives relating to the Nuremberg trials (around 500 boxes) and struggled to see how I would pick what to look at. Helpfully, there was a catalogue on the archives website which explained what was in each box so I began to select evidence that I thought might be interesting to get an idea of the trial. To exemplify, I looked at reports from Reinhard Heydrich (a Nazi officer in the SS) on the ‘Final Solution’ which were clear proof of the Nazi’s plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe. As a history student I am familiar with this, but seeing the words on the original manuscript was still shocking. One sentence that was particularly striking read ‘as far as possible the territories enumerated under 1) are to be cleared of Jews, but the very least to be aimed at is the formation of a very few “concentration” towns’. [MS 200 IMT/16/1] Though the document does not specifically refer to the ‘Final Solution’, it is a piece of a puzzle whereby all the evidence can be put together to unveil these horrific plans.

International Military Tribunal: Opening statement for the United States of America, 21 Nov 1945 [MS 200 IMT/13/1]

International Military Tribunal: Opening statement for the United States of America, 21 Nov 1945 [MS 200 IMT/13/1]

The evidence used at the trials was not just official Nazi documentation such as reports. There were also a number of excerpts taken from Hitler’s, Mein Kampf, and newspapers such as National Socialist Monthly which give the historian a glimpse into the anti-Semitic rhetoric that was spread throughout Germany and Eastern Europe. The writings are again, shocking and disturbing but by looking through such a variety of material helped me to understand the case the prosecution was attempting to build against the Nazi’s by showing the methods they used to rally support that led to the murder of six million Jews.

Using the archives has really helped me develop my skills as a historian. Though in my undergraduate degree I used them to look at the Mountbatten Papers collection, it has been through this project that I have really learnt how to select evidence properly and how to critique sources in a way that portrays my argument effectively. What has also been motivating is having access to real documents; it has been important for me to look at original material – rather than just relying on secondary sources – to shape my understanding of the trials. I am also very grateful to the staff at the Archives who have been very patient with me and always helpful in terms of answering questions and providing me with the material that I needed!

Along with the papers of the Nuremberg trial, papers relating to the Eichmann trial can be found among the collections MS 60 Papers of Revd Dr James Parkes and MS 237-41 Papers of the Institute of Jewish Affairs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s