The GHI benefits tremendously from the help of its many talented interns. The following post was written by GHDI project intern Isabella Auerbach, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, who is majoring in European history. — Editorial note, Href
The Nuremberg Trials Project, an ongoing digitization effort by the Harvard Law School Library (HLSL), is an open-access initiative aimed at transporting the documents relating to the 1945 to 1949 tribunals to an online platform. The project, first conceived in the late 1990s, features a highly organized website that provides ample introductory information regarding the Nuremberg trials, along with the trial documents and transcripts themselves.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Paul Deschner, the project manager for the Nuremberg Trials Project and an Application Developer at the library’s Innovation Lab, who was first brought on to the project due to his professional background in software engineering. Deschner discussed both the history and potential future of this undertaking, emphasizing the ongoing significance of these documents, which were produced over seventy years ago.
History of the Documents
Documents relating to the Nuremberg trials were published almost immediately after the conclusion of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the earliest of the thirteen trials. In 1947, the first of forty-two volumes containing documents, transcripts and judgements was published in Nuremberg under the direction of the IMT. The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, released as the official record of this first trial, served as a crucial step in making this historical and legal occurrence accessible to a wider public.
Moreover, throughout the duration of the following twelve Nuremberg trials, Deschner estimates that close to one hundred copies of documents were compiled for prosecution and defense lawyers, judges and the international press. After the trials concluded in 1949 in Germany, the staff of the tribunals chose to distribute these documents to various archives, primarily in geographically dispersed institutions in North America and Europe, to make them available for researchers.
Not all material sets were fully complete, and various institutions received different portions of the trial documents. Harvard Law School was given a nearly complete version – Deschner believes this may be because a number of graduates from Harvard Law School worked at the trials, and tribunal staff members frequently gave their document sets to their home institutions.
After being shipped to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, the Nuremberg trials documents would spend the following fifty years occupying 700 to 800 archival boxes in the basement of the Harvard Law School Library. Researchers utilized these documents during the second half of the twentieth century, but the way in which the trial materials were organized permitted only scholars with procedural knowledge of the Nuremberg trials to study the case materials.
 The Harvard Law School Library trial originally placed trial documents in filing cabinets, organized by trial. A box-level description noted which case was located in each box, and the document books were at times thematically organized. A researcher would typically be told which boxes contained which trials and if the documents were from prosecution or defense, or were source materials. Because only this information was provided for visitors, one would likely require significant knowledge of the documents’ structure in order to search for specific materials.
History of the Project
The Harvard Law School Library’s Nuremberg trials documents had remained in a building basement for nearly fifty years when, in 1998, the Nuremberg Trials Project was conceived. At this time, libraries were first beginning to explore the use of digital technology. The desire to make these documents accessible to a wider public, paired with the deteriorating physical state of these records, drove Harvard Law School to undertake the digitization of the 750,000 pages of the documents they had received five decades prior.
When the pilot project commenced in 1998 — made possible via funds provided by a Harvard Law School graduate — a professional historian was assigned to analyze the documents for Case 1 (the “Medical Trial”) into a database, and a database developer was brought on board to create the database and a prototype of the website to be used to make the documents available to the general public. The project contracted with Harvard’s Digital Imaging Group to provide the digital images of the documents for Case 1.
Since 1998, Harvard Law School has conducted the digitization process in discontinuous stages, in accordance with the ebb and flow of grant funding. The project, Deschner tells me, has had to depend on external funding since its conception in order to process and publish all thirteen trials. This has forced Harvard Law School’s team to work in various stages, whenever funding is made available.
The online database for this project is constructed in an accessible and highly organized manner, allowing viewers less familiar with the Nuremberg trials to comprehend the information offered through this website. The project contains a “Trials” section, comprised of information on both the defendants and the thirteen Nuremberg trial summaries. A “Who was who in Nazi Germany” page lists relevant individuals involved in the Third Reich government, the SS, the NSDAP and the military, providing readers with both official positions and dates for 118 men involved in these trials.
Because the content of each document is often unclear, the Nuremberg Trials Project has created descriptions for each document, containing information such as the individuals and the subjects relating to the corresponding source.
A database provides users with information regarding each document. Every source is accompanied by descriptors such as item number, descriptive and literal title, author, document date, notes, photographs, language, document version, subjects concerned in document and trial citations. Once a document is selected, the user is presented with a digital version of the document and the descriptive information associated with it, including date, author and the trial issues relating to the text (for example, “freezing experiments”).
Today, documents for five out of the thirteen Nuremberg trials have been fully analyzed, digitized and made available on the project website; Harvard Law School has thus made a total of 650,000 pages of primary sources available to the public. These documents consist of trial exhibits, source documents, trial transcripts, opening and closing statements, trial briefs from both prosecution and defense, along with over two hundred photographs from the trials. Through funding provided in 2014, Harvard has now completed the digitization of all trial materials, and is in the process of completing the analysis work for the remaining trials.
Deschner sees the project moving forward and expanding in the future. He hopes that after completing the basic document-description work for all trials – this is estimated to occur sometime within the next year or two – the project team will be in a position to post all thirteen trials and manuscripts online. At this point, Deschner anticipates adding a layer of deeper analysis to each trial and supplementing the basic descriptions with richer metadata. An additional phase would focus on converting all the documents in the collection to machine-readable text, allowing for the addition of full-text search. “I think that this will enormously increase the utility of the website,” Deschner explained to me, “once people can access the documents using their own search terms, and not just the ones that our analysts have decided are appropriate.”
Thus, the project team plans not only to increase the number of trial documents for this project, but is also taking steps to make the Nuremberg Trials Project even more accessible to a wide range of users.
While originally tailored to researchers, the Nuremberg Trials Project has attracted individuals from diverse areas of professional concerns, along with users interested in these documents for private reasons.
The project website originally contained very little introductory material and described digitized documents in a clipped manner. Once users began sending feedback to the project staff in the 2000s, however, the team realized that many questions had been sent from high school and middle school students interested in various aspects of the trials.
Thus, the website now includes introductory materials to the various elements of the collection and the separate trials that have been published thus far. As a result, the project website has become accessible to users containing varying degrees of knowledge of the Nuremberg trials. Moreover, Deschner explains that the trial transcripts provided by the project’s website serve as crucial context for the documents. “I think originally, the main focus was the documents themselves, because the documents are the places where the Nazi regime can actually be seen planning and carrying through its program,” Deschner explained to me, “but the transcripts are the narrative, the background, of everything that was happening in a given trial… They’re a wonderful kind of contextualizing material or text to have for someone who is looking at the documents.”
Through its introductory information and inclusion of trial transcripts, the project’s website serves as far more than a digital archive for researchers. It has evolved into an educational platform accessible for all audiences, drawn to these documents for different reasons, each with varying degrees of knowledge surrounding these military tribunals.
Therein lies the brilliance of this project. That it truly provides history for all.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Deschner why he believes that these documents, produced over seventy years ago, are still so relevant and widely used today:
People who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. It’s just something we can’t afford to have happen. And these documents lay out in great detail, from so many different perspectives, how that all happened historically… It’s just making that usable and trying to make it as coherent as possible. That is what we are trying to do. I mean, that is the value of studying history at all, I think.
Sources: All documents and screenshots are from the Nuremberg Trials Project website.
Image 1: Extracts from speeches concerning the SS and the conduct of the war, NMT 2, October 4, 1943.
Image 2: Instructions to Security Police and Security Service officers on the assignment of prisoners to concentration camps, January 2, 1941.