January 27th marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which coincides with the date that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945. In that vein, we will delve into two World War II era collections at the American Heritage Center – those of Murray C. Bernays and Grace Robinson. Murray Bernays was an American lawyer who served in the U.S. Army during both World Wars. In 1945 he became a colonel with the U.S. Army General Staff Corps. It was in this role that Bernays helped to develop the legal procedures and framework for the international military tribunal that conducted the Nuremberg War Crime Trials.
During World War II, the Nazis committed genocide and other horrific war crimes. But until the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946, never had an international court of law been convened to try war criminals. Twenty-four high ranking Nazi leaders were called before a court of judges. The governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union each designated a prosecutor. Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson was tapped by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to serve as the American prosecutor. Murray Bernays was Justice Jackson’s military advisor.
Nuremberg, Germany, was chosen for the site of the trials, as the city had been the symbolic home of the Nazi Party. It was considered fitting that Nuremberg would also be the place where the Party leaders met their fates. The crimes committed by the Nazis were so reprehensible they were categorized as crimes against humanity. It was posited by the Allied legal community that Germany had engaged in an unprovoked aggressive war, and that aggressive war was a crime against civilization. The defendants in the Nuremberg trials were accused of violations of the rules of war as regulated by the Hague Conventions. Interestingly, the German Military Code recognized that the criminal law applied, even in case of war, stating: “If the execution of a military order violates the criminal law, then the superior officer giving the order will bear responsibility therefor.”
There were some who questioned the need for any trial at all – they favored punishment by decree. But Murray Bernays argued that democratic traditions required the kind of integrity and justice that a courtroom offers. Following his involvement in preparations for the trials, Bernays published articles in Reader’s Digest and Survey Graphic magazines explaining his thinking and analysis behind the structure and justification for the trials. Bernays pointed out that while the Nuremberg trials were unprecedented, they were merely ensuring that war criminals be tried “pursuant to recognized law.”
As the Nuremberg Trials progressed, New York Daily News reporter Grace Robinson found herself in the courtroom in Nuremberg. She had been assigned to report on post-war Germany. Robinson was present in court on June 20th, 1946, to witness the prosecution of some of the most infamous Nazi leaders, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Hearing the testimony of Albert Speer from the witness stand made a lasting impression, even on Robinson who had nearly thirty years of reporting experience under her belt. She called it the “most interesting assignment of my life”.
Hermann Goering was the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, after Hitler. Responsible for the creation of the Gestapo – the official secret police – he was also commander in chief of the Nazi Air Force (the Luftwaffe). Goering personally confiscated the property of Jews and over the course of the war was able to amass a sizeable fortune. At Nuremberg he was sentenced to hang but committed suicide by swallowing a capsule of cyanide just hours before his execution. Rudolf Hess, a Deputy Fuhrer appointed by Hitler, was another one of the leaders of the Nazi Party tried at Nuremberg. Hess was sentenced to life in prison in Berlin and died while still in custody at the age of 93. Albert Speer was an architect who became the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. It was under his authority that Jews and other prisoners of the Nazis were used as slave labor. Speer was the only defendant to take personal responsibility for his actions. But he claimed to have no knowledge of the Holocaust. Still, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Ernst Kaltenbrunner was the most senior member of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel) to face trial at Nuremberg. Loyal to Hitler and virulently anti-Semitic, he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed in October 1946.
If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the American Heritage Center to access the Murray C. Bernays and Grace Robinson papers. A portion of the Grace Robinson papers are also digitized and available online in Luna. In Bernays’ collection you will find information on the structure of the trials and files pertaining to witnesses and evidence compiled by the prosecutors in advance of the trials. The Robinson papers include a collection of newspaper clippings covering the Nuremberg Trials from various newspapers dated 1945 to 1946.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.