HOW THE COURTROOM 600 PROJECT STARTED

HOW THE COURTROOM 600 PROJECT STARTED

My parents were children of the Great Depression, a time when economic hardship was the norm and thriftiness a habit carried forward. In addition to scrimping with money, the “Silent Generation” was also scant on information sharing.

Case in point: my 89-year-old mom who was often aghast at today’s transparency, admitted that people just didn’t ask questions or talk about things the way they do now. She recounted a time when her Aunt Rose was in the hospital and relatives asked what was wrong. “She had an operation” is what was said, plain and simple. Heads nodded and the matter was closed. Never mind she had breast cancer which would be important for every woman in the family to know, certainly her descendants!

It wasn’t just women of the Silent Generation that were tight lipped, turns out the men were too – especially veterans of World War II. For those who experienced the horrors of battle watching their buddies die or suffering injury themselves, it’s understandable. 

But my father witnessed something entirely different in World War II, and passed without sharing his unique story.

As one of 654 Americans dispatched to Nuremberg, Germany in the summer of 1945, he helped prepare for the international trial of major Nazi war criminals.

It was only after my parents divorced that I first heard about it, in front of other siblings and my dad’s new partner one Christmas. No specifics were revealed other than – he worked there and was planning a trip to revisit the city again. If only I had the presence of mind to follow up…

Fast forward to the summer of 2015. As I watched over him sedated in hospice, his lady friend and partner of twenty-some years arrived with a bag for me. “Your dad wanted you to have these,” she said. “It’s his war memorabilia.”

After she left I spread everything out to take inventory. Since I’m the one person in our family who uses Photoshop, I figured there might be pictures or other items I could use to make a funeral poster.

Turns out there was way more than photographs in that bag. There was an entire secret story. Taking it all in, I felt as if I’d been transported to another time, another world. There were illustrated postcards of landmarks in the medieval city of Nuremberg, with the words “Adolph Hitler Platz” crossed out and “Marketplatz” stamped in its place; tiny sepia toned, deckle-edge photos of my dad standing amidst the ruins; security badges authorizing him to enter the Palace of Justice, and others for the prison; and one document which puzzles me to this day – a tri-fold restricted authorization card naming him as a Special Agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps assigned to Internal Security. It was hand signed by the Commandant of the Nuremberg prison (I would come to learn), exempting him from all curfew regulations and permitting entrance to any building or installation deemed off limits.

Then I got to his army discharge papers, which listed him as a “clerk typist.” So I thought – if he’s only a typist, why all the high-level security clearance, and…what’s he doing in the Major War Criminals wing of the prison?

A million questions rushed into my mind. Why didn’t he share this story, was it still classified? Where did he keep all these documents, because not even my mother had seen them – a big surprise to us all.

He was only 21 years old in 1945, a lifetime away. Yet my father witnessed history. In Nuremberg, he learned about the scope of Nazi criminality so vast it’s simply beyond comprehension. As I glanced at him peacefully sleeping I realized, the chance to hear his story personally had come and gone.

After returning home and a period of grieving I was determined to get to the bottom of it all. I would document the story – if not for me, for my father’s grandchildren.

What was it like to live and work in a city 90% bombed to ruins, among an enemy population and with 20,000 dead still buried amongst the rubble? Who were my dad’s co-workers in the deckled edge photos he thought important enough to save and hide all these years, and what were their roles in the trial? When the day’s work was done, how did they socialize given such extreme limitations? You couldn’t even drink the water without adding a chlorine tablet.

This quest for answers transformed me from casual inquisitor to amateur detective; from that point on I kept a standing date with Google just about every night, loading up my carts on Amazon and eBay with out-of-print eyewitness accounts and biographies of people who worked at the trials.

As a creative director and producer, the human experience at Nuremberg fascinated me. But stories and pictures that could provide context and break down the complexity of these trials, were not online.

I uncovered books written by journalists, psychologists, interpreters, and other personnel – many had published their memoirs within 10 years of the trial’s end. Another wave and more complete historian accounts were released between 1990 and 2010, either as compilation projects or solo works. Some of these accounts were written by descendants of those who worked in Nuremberg.

My book shelves were buckling with so many great stories yet they were contained in so many disparate sources.

From guards in white helmets (called “snowdrops”) to technicians, translators, lawyers and many more men and women behind the scenes – all worked furiously to mount an international trial in four languages, something that had never been done.

It was a race against the clock with immense obstacles for the US Army and war crimes community every day during that summer of 1945. Everyone was literally flying by the seat of their pants, all the way to the first day of trial, November 20th, 1945. Then a different kind of drama played out over the course of 403 court sessions, through most of 1946.

Nuremberg’s statistics alone are staggering: prosecutors sifted through 100,000 captured German documents (that’s 3000 tons of paper) and millions of images/feet of film; the US Army had to massively renovate the courthouse, office buildings, and a hotel. They arranged all food, housing, supplies and logistics for a transplanted international community of more than a thousand. The US Army took on all this and more, guarding the Nazi prisoners and witnesses, providing security throughout area, and developing an infrastructure in which 700 million mimeographed, typewritten pages could be created over the next 9 months of trial. That’s a stack of paper 47 miles high, and evidently my father may have typed some of it!

I began to realize a “behind the scenes” story of Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, with both words and pictures together, has never been told. All the human drama, massive logistics, international diplomacy and compromise involved in such an undertaking – could it be consolidated somehow?

Add to that the stories of Hitler’s henchmen in the dock who were responsible for everything from waging aggressive war to unprecedented art and gold plunder, propaganda, slave labor, torture – and implementing the Holocaust.

Outside the courtroom amidst the rubble, two other populations intersect the Nuremberg story: “displaced people” or DPs that include homeless, traumatized, concentration camp survivors; and German citizens – mostly women, children, and the elderly since men at war were either dead or in POW camps. Starving, disillusioned, brainwashed in different ways, and living amidst the ruins – their journeys are part of this story too.

The entire canvas is too vast for a film alone, for there are too many protagonists and story lines to weave together – and not everyone will want to peruse the entire canvas. So then, how could this content be organized?

I began to envision:

  • An online experience where the stories and lessons from Nuremberg are woven into an interactive tapestry of people, places, and events.
  • A new kind of learning tool that leverages emerging technology, is visually rich and engaging for the next generation of digital-native students, researchers, and global citizens.
  • An easy to navigate portal that links to trusted, curated lists of films, books, websites for more in-depth research on many aspects of the trial.

The 1945-46 International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg has been one of the most studied trials in history.

Evidence, photos, oral history transcripts, interrogations and papers related to the prosecution have been declassified, written about extensively and digitized over the past several years – facilitating research for anyone with a computer and an interest (like me!).

Likewise, Nazi Germany remains the most researched period in history. Each year new books, documentaries, and television programs about the Third Reich are released and attract large audiences. Will the famous Amber Room ever turn up? How about the supposed trainload of gold in Poland, and over 100,000 missing pieces of art never repatriated to their rightful owners?

In May of 2017, a book about Nazi drug use was published and became an international bestseller. The author spent five years studying diaries from Hitler’s personal physician, where he learned that from 1943-45, twice daily injections of steroids and oxycodone were administered (among other things) – and cocaine was swabbed inside Hitler’s nose. This while the trajectory of the war had already turned. How’s that for behind the scenes?

Less than a handful of people who witnessed Nuremberg are still alive today. Therefore it will be up to the descendants to carry forward their stories, in ways that leverage the transformative potential of digital.

As such, I founded a non-profit and named it Descendants Media Group. Our mission is to teach and inspire through experiential storytelling. By learning from the past, we’ll foster empathy and help create a culture of peace, understanding and tolerance.

Named after the room where the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials occurred between 1945-49, Courtroom 600 will be the website I wished was available when researching my father’s hidden past.

Now, along with my talented group of directors and advisors, we’re actively bringing this vision to life, vividly showcasing the faults of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, the legacy of justice at Nuremberg, and its many lessons for future generations to ponder.

The best stories take you right inside them, and that’s exactly what we plan to do. Courtroom 600 will be an immersive website filled with short videos, podcasts, photo galleries, artifacts and realistic 3D environments.

Should you want to get involved or donate, send a note, we’d love to meet you. And please share this website with friends or colleagues who may have an interest, so the story and teachings of Courtroom 600 can live on forever.

WHY NUREMBERG MUST BE TAUGHT, NOW

WHY NUREMBERG MUST BE TAUGHT, NOW

A school district in Wisconsin said the First Amendment prevented it from punishing students in this picture, in which many are making what appears to be a Nazi salute. Source: Peter Gust, via Associated Press

Dave Fript
History Teacher Emeritus, Latin School of Chicago
Teacher Fellow, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Educational Advisor, Descendants Media Group/Courtroom 600 Project

The group of high school boys giving what appears to be the Nazi salute might have intended it as a joke, but maybe not. However, the young men marching with Tiki torches in Charlottesville were not joking; they were true believers.

White supremacy, ethnic nationalism, and racial hatred have returned and seem to be almost respectable once again in Europe and America. As David Leonhardt wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Overt racism is on the upswing. White supremacists are hanging banners and spray-painting graffiti. Anti-Semitism has surged on social media.” He continues more hopefully, explaining that the majority of young people are opposed to racism.

Nevertheless, if the high school students above think it’s a joke and if some young people think Nazism is good, we as educators need to find as many different ways as possible to help the next generation understand the extraordinary evil of Nazism and everything it contains.

This is why I chose to endorse and to be a consultant to Courtroom 600: largely because of the young people in these photographs and many more that I have met in the United States and Europe.

 

Neo-Nazis, alt-right, and white supremacists chant at counter protestors around the base of a Thomas Jefferson statue after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When I look at this picture of young men at the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, I can only wonder how they do not know about the evils of Nazism.  Between 1933-1945, the Nazis murdered millions of people whom they believed to be racially inferior, but the calamities they inflicted on Aryans, those they thought to be racially superior, were just as overwhelming.

The German people were not innocent victims of the Nazis; however, they still suffered because of Nazi ideology. The war was not an accident; it was planned and implemented by the leaders of Nazi Germany, and when they lost it, the consequences to the German people were disastrous.   Nine million Germans died in the war compared with 550,000 French people.  Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States lost under a half million each.

The suffering of German women was extreme. They too paid for their support of a state that intended on stealing the lands of others and enslaving and murdering the people living on those lands.  The war was catastrophic for Germany and all of Europe. This is what those young people in the photos just don’t understand.

They were not taught about the war in depth.  They did not see the pictures of boys and young men, looking very much like themselves, being marched out of Stalingrad to starve or freeze to death in captivity.  No one showed them what Hitler brought upon the German people.  They did not see the evidence and or learn the lessons of the Nuremberg Trials. Had they done so, they might have known that Nazi Germany was not a joke, and that the German people were among Hitler’s greatest victims.  Somehow, they missed one of life’s great truths: when you do great evil to others, it usually comes back to you.

Had those Baraboo, Wisconsin students been Aryan boys their age throwing up that salute in a 1939 German classroom, and had the young men marching at Charlottesville been marching in Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s, at least half of them would be dead by 1945, and they would have died in horrific ways.

Teaching the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials is not new to me.  I taught a class on Nazi Germany that simulated the Nuremberg Tribunals as a final examination.  But in one way or another, all of my classes contained a focus on morals and ethics: How should we treat one another?  Even when I taught the overviews of American, European, or Contemporary Middle East history, I wanted my students to wrestle with their values.  I taught the history of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials for over forty years, but my audience was limited. The world has changed dramatically, and the truths learned at those trials still need to be taught and to a much larger group of students.

This is why I believe that we need projects like the Courtroom 600 learning project.

 

From the Courtroom 600 Photo Analysis Pilot website, featuring over 300 images, documents, and artifacts.

Courtroom 600 will provide educators with access to primary source photographs, documents, and artifacts from the Nuremberg trials, presenting them in context with people and events using storytelling as a teaching method.

While the project is being funded and developed, the Courtroom 600 Pilot Website can allow teachers and students the chance to analyze primary source photos now. More than that, it allows students to do their own research, following their own interests and concerns. Using the pilot site, even middle school teachers have the ability to assign high school level research assignments.

The Lessons of Nuremberg are Relevant Today

Examples of extraordinary evil, racism, genocide, sexism, and kleptocracy are written in every chapter of every history text but nowhere is it clearer than in Nazi Germany.  The behaviors of the Nazis should provide all of us with a clear example of the worst of human behaviors, and they should provide a touchstone as to how to govern and to be governed. 

Nazi Germany was so deeply and utterly malicious that it provides the world with a baseline for moral reflection.  It was a state that was based on the belief of the inequality of mankind and that it was the obligation of the superior race to steal the lands of the “inferiors” and murder them.  Consequently, we need to examine the Third Reich deeply and seriously, because if we study their depravities, we may be able to avoid making similar mistakes.  There are basic moral guidelines disdained by Nazi ideology that we must consider as essential.

By examining the consequences of the actions of the Third Reich, students should know that the following are wrong:

  • Demonizing groups of people and treating them as disposable others
  • Setting ourselves up as the good “us” being attacked by the evil “other”
  • Justifying our actions with the same rationalizations used by the Nazis

US Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson reads his opening statement to the International Military Tribunal on November 21, 1945 in Courtroom 600, Nuremberg.

As Justice Jackson, the U.S. Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, said of the defendants in his Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal, “What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life. They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names.”

The Nuremberg trials provide, as Justice Jackson stated in his opening, “the documentary evidence” of the racial hatred, genocide, aggressive war, and rabid ethnic nationalism that we see reborn today.  That is why we need to bring the trials up from the footnotes of our history texts and curricula and make them a focus of our classes.

Granted, racial and eugenic language is somewhat different today than in the past, but an underlying issue remains the same:  the primeval belief that our tribe is good and right while other tribes are evil; or, if not evil—at least worthy of suspicion and fear.  That is what the young men marching in Charlottesville meant when they shouted, “The Jews will not replace us.”  Perhaps some of those marchers would have thought twice about doing so if they would have studied Nuremberg in depth.  Learning who the Nazi leaders really were might have dissuaded some of those young men from carrying Tiki torches; as none of the men on trial were worthy of emulation.

Hermann Goering, the highest ranking official to be tried, started his Nuremberg cross-examination strutting, but was sweating and squirming by the end.  It is difficult to imagine any teenager looking at Goering, a bloated morphine addict, and saying, “That’s my role model.”

The rabid anti-Semite propagandist Julius Streicher was detested by his fellow Nazis at Nuremberg, and in the course of the trial, was shown to be a sadistic pedophile.

 

(L) Hermann Goering with Julius Streicher, and (R) after his surrender to the US Army May 8, 1945 in Augsburg, Germany. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Studying the cases of Hitler’s henchmen and learning about their behavior before and during the trials, should influence most people to turn away from lure of neo-Nazi websites.

We should be looking to add a focus on the perpetrators without taking away from our study of the intended victims of Nazism.  The suffering of the Jews and other victims of Nazism need to be stressed, and Courtroom 600 facilitates that study; however, in a time when the Alternative für Deutschland won nearly 13% of the vote in Germany, we need to explain that Hitler and the Nazis did not do good things for Germany.

Far too many teenagers and young adults only know the Nazis as guys who wore cool uniforms and got to march in parades.  They need to know better, and as educators, we need to utilize all the tools available to teach them.