International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Winter 2015 Issue



A Journalist’s Notes and Files from Nuremberg Now Available in The Hague

Iva Vukusic
By: Iva Vukusic, International Judicial Monitor Correspondent in The Hague

One of the leading international law libraries in the world, the Peace Palace Library in The Hague, recently presented a unique collection to its visitors and users. The material collected by an Austrian journalist covering the Nuremberg proceedings was bought at an auction some years ago and can now be studied in the reading room of the famous library, located right next to the Palace housing, among others, the International Court of Justice.

Five boxes of material with stickers containing the names of Nuremberg defendants and others tried in subsequent proceedings are a pleasure to study for anyone with a keen interest in law and history. Göring, von Papen, Lammers, Frank, Keitel, Höss, Rosenberg, Eichmann are some of the individuals involved in proceedings at Nuremberg that the Austrian journalist Peter Martin Bleibtreu wrote about in the years following the Second World War. Folders contain mainly material in German, but English-language items can be found among the trial transcripts, witness statements, diplomatic cables, pictures and drawings from the courtroom, correspondence with the family members of the accused, and newspaper clippings. The cartoons from the courtroom are particularly interesting, depicting the defendants and their facial expressions as they heard evidence. The material has been provided for study as part of an effort to mark the 70th anniversary, in 2015, of the Nuremberg proceedings. In November, the Library is planning to organize activities to revisit this watershed moment in international law and policy.

The journalist who collected the material while reporting for a Vienna-based newspaper, Peter Martin Bleibtreu, is somewhat of a mysterious character and it seems not much is known about him to this day. Even inquiries with the auction house that possessed the material yielded no results, as they claimed to possess no detailed information. Apparently Bleibtreu claimed to have provided the cyanide capsule that Hermann Göring used to take his own life before he was to be executed, but this version of events was never widely accepted. Much surrounding the death of the high-ranking Nazi official remains unknown. This material, however, provides a great insight into historical proceedings held almost 70 years ago. It provides researchers with the opportunity to study the defendants and the type of material that was used to prosecute them.  

The Charter of the International Military Tribunal provides details of mandate and jurisdiction and outlines the three main crimes it would prosecute: crimes against peace (which is essentially the crime of aggression today), war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Genocide was still emerging as a concept, advanced by the efforts of Raphael Lemkin, Polish lawyer of Jewish decent, and it was only defined in the Genocide Convention in 1948.

Since Nuremberg, both substantial and procedural law developed and advanced incredibly in the courts, and the jurisprudence on international criminal law is growing. The paradigm has changed and moved from complete impunity towards accountability. There is no ongoing conflict today with massive human rights violations which does not include some civil society group, journalists or human rights activist calling for investigations and prosecutions or, at least, an inquiry into the allegations. The project of international justice is still imperfect and dependent on political support of strong countries. This is made painfully obvious by the lack of response to the continuous violations of international law committed in Syria. Many crimes still don’t have their day in court. However, the project of international justice is slowly progressing towards a system where laws are applied to everyone equally. There are setbacks, naturally, but international justice is here to stay. In the future, one might even hope for justice that provides some redress to the victims.      

The accused in Nuremberg, where this modern effort of bringing perpetrators to justice began, were high-ranking Nazi political and military officials. They were brought before the court to face serious charges of, essentially, waging aggressive war. Some of them were acquitted in proceedings that are often hailed as being not only fair, but also efficient and short. The contemporary war crimes trials are longer, especially in complex cases such as that of Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic or war-time political leader Radovan Karadzic tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Today’s proceedings depend on


cooperation (or the lack thereof) of governments, and tend to present more viva voce witnesses in court. Moreover, modern courts have more elaborate procedural rules and have to take into consideration more jurisprudence where much can be contested resulting in delays and slow progress.  

Within this collection is a folder titled “von Papen,” containing material relating to the vice-chancellor under Hitler in the early Nazi years who was acquitted in Nuremberg. Pictures are included, showing the German politician and nobleman discussing with a group of people and a drawing of his face, as well as a handwritten letter from 1948. The journalist then exchanged several letters with the defendant’s family. The same folder contains diplomatic cables from Berlin, Vienna and Washington D.C. from the 1930s, as the policies of Hitler and the Nazis became increasingly aggressive and threatening to neighbors as well as intolerant to those that, in their view, threatened the unity and prosperity of Germans. Some of the documents created by the American Consulate in Vienna in July of 1938 address the situation in Austria and the annexation earlier that year. While previously considered strictly confidential, these materials are now available to researchers interested in the study of law and diplomacy in the wake of the Second World War.  

Excellent English-language sources can be found online for further study, and two of them are housed at Harvard University and Yale University respectively. They provide the opportunity to study the indictment against Hermann Göring and others and the relevant judgments and fascinating photographs from the courtroom. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also holds a rich archive, and many of its materials relate to Nuremberg.  

There is no doubt today about the significance of the Nuremberg proceedings that followed the horrific destruction and suffering of the Second World War. Numerous academics, lawyers and historians studied the proceedings that fundamentally changed how we think about crimes in war and how we deal with them globally. Although some critics emphasize the ‘victor’s justice’ nature of the application of law after the Second World War (and a lack of reckoning of any violations committed by Allied forces), Nuremberg still stands as a unique moment in history: a time when revenge was abandoned in pursuit of the rule of law.  Even those suspected of the most horrendous crimes were given an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges.

After Nuremberg, the onset of the Cold War halted most international collaboration on matters of international justice and for some forty years the project laid virtually dormant. It was the beginning of the 1990s and the brutal war in the former Yugoslavia that reignited the idea that the international community, united, needs to confront those that are most responsible for horrific violations of international law and seek to punish them in fair and impartial proceedings where they will be guaranteed defense by competent counsel. A variety of courts followed, fully international, hybrid and domestic- for example: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, the State Court in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the International Criminal Court. All of them work to advance the rule of law and bring a measure of justice to the victims. Struggles still exist as these courts often fall victim to political considerations and a lack of cooperation of states, but the project of international justice is advancing and that is due to, largely, the legacy of Nuremberg. 

The International Court of Justice holds archives from the actual Nuremberg proceedings and an extensive list of publications regarding those proceedings is available at the Peace Palace Library. Those publications are just part of over a million titles available to visitors dealing with topics within, among others, international criminal law, international humanitarian law, state responsibility, and international human rights law. 

Finally, the Nuremberg related material is not the only reason to visit. Apart from the International Court of Justice, the Palace that opened in 1913 to which the Library is adjacent, houses two other important institutions: the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the Hague Academy of International Law. Throughout the history of the Library, the Carnegie Foundation played a vital role, managing the donation made by Andrew Carnegie, which made the construction of the Palace possible. Today it is one of the most recognizable buildings housing international institutions and a crucial location to visit for anyone interested in the Nuremberg trials and, more generally, international law.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2015 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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