Document Analyst's Report

During October I analyzed 197 documents (1045 pages) spanning five of the NMT Case 9 defendants (it helped that one defendant offered only one document before his case was severed due to illness).

Documentary infallibility? When the prosecutor cross-examined Sandberger about a promotion recorded in his SS personnel file, Sandberger claimed that the record was inaccurate in several respects. The prosecutor responded: "The memory of man might fail. Records, if they are not destroyed, stand." Grand rhetoric, but those of us who do documentary history know that those records are often riddled with errors ranging from flawed information to omissions to simple typos, so they stand on shaky foundations.

The equivalency tactic: The defendants were charged with exterminating Communists and Jews, and in response two of them submitted wartime reports on Soviet "extermination units" and the capture of an "extermination battalion" composed of fanatic Communists and "very many Jews" whose task was to commit sabotage and kill German troops behind the lines. The implied argument was that the German-Soviet war was one of extermination and the einsatz operation was a sort of self-defense.

A vocabulary tactic: In an elaboration of the basic "superior orders" defense, Blume's attorney attempted to dress up with argument with the doctrine of "unexpectability" (an echo of Cardozo's term "foreseeability" to establish when liability applies in negligence cases). The claim was that the court could not hold someone responsible for committing a crime when it was "unexpectable" that he had a free choice of whether to do the deed or not, and it was "unexpectable" that a German could freely choose to disobey an order issued by Hitler. The point did not change the issue, and the polysyllables may have been counterproductive as a rhetorical flourish before notably skeptical judges.

The price of disobedience: One fact that worked against the defendants who used the superior orders argument, including the threat of execution for disobeying an order during the war (a threat that Himmler made explicit to his officers), was that none of them had been executed or even prosecuted for their attempts to avoid conducting mass executions. Defendant Rasch explained that the threat operated by a back channel. He had learned from the experience of other SS officers that if he had openly defied Hitler's order, he would have been sent to a concentration camp "and then to one of the so-called 'lost battalions' (Verlorener Haufen) whose members were assigned to especially dangerous tasks and thus systematically annihilated." There was good logic in the point, as no organization, certainly not the SS, wants to publicize the disloyalty of a senior official (as a trial and execution would have done); it is much better to quietly dispose of the problem. One of the defendants deemed "too soft" by the SS had indeed been stripped of his rank and was slated for reassignment on the Russian front.

Matt Seccombe, 3 November 2017