In Part 4 of our Crime Story series Nuremberg, we examine the United States prosecuting team’s preparation and presentation of the documentary “Nazi Concentration Camps.” We follow with an assessment of the dramatic impact of that film on the proceedings.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal, Crime Story presents a new series, NUREMBERG. Sean Smith examines the many dimensions of the historic judicial proceedings. Drawing on official transcripts of the trial, as well as a vast bibliography of first- and second-hand accounts, NUREMBERG tells the stories behind the legal, political and personal struggles which complicated this revolutionary exercise in international jurisprudence. You can find previous episodes of our Nuremberg series here.
NUREMBERG PART 4
It’s mid-afternoon on November 29, 1945, Day Eight of the International Military Tribunal proceedings in Nuremberg. Over the shattered city, the sky is already dark. Winter is here. The Court returns after a ten-minute recess to find a new piece of furniture in the courtroom – a portable white movie screen is positioned against the wall, perpendicular to the dock and the Judge’s dais.
Tom Dodd, Number Two prosecutor on the US team, rises to explain the addition.
DODD: IF IT PLEASE THE TRIBUNAL, THE PROSECUTION FOR THE UNITED STATES WILL AT THIS TIME PRESENT TO THE TRIBUNAL, WITH ITS PERMISSION, A DOCUMENTARY FILM ON CONCENTRATION CAMPS. THIS IS BY NO MEANS THE ENTIRE PROOF WHICH THE PROSECUTION WILL OFFER WITH RESPECT TO THE SUBJECT OF CONCENTRATION CAMPS, BUT THIS FILM WHICH WE OFFER REPRESENTS IN A BRIEF AND UNFORGETTABLE FORM AN EXPLANATION OF WHAT THE WORDS “CONCENTRATION CAMP” IMPLY….
The prosecution’s screening of the hourlong Nazi Concentration Camps film is not entirely unexpected, yet it still catches many observers off-guard. During his opening statement the previous week, Chief Justice Jackson vowed to present visual evidence as part of his document-based case against Goering and his co-defendants.
JACKSON: WE WILL SHOW YOU THESE CONCENTRATION CAMPS IN MOTION PICTURES, JUST AS THE ALLIED ARMIES FOUND THEM WHEN THEY ARRIVED…. OUR PROOF WILL BE DISGUSTING AND YOU WILL SAY I HAVE ROBBED YOU OF YOUR SLEEP… I AM ONE WHO RECEIVED DURING THIS WAR MOST ATROCITY TALES WITH SUSPICION AND SKEPTICISM. BUT THE PROOF HERE WILL BE SO OVERWHELMING THAT I VENTURE TO PREDICT NOT ONE WORD I HAVE SPOKEN WILL BE DENIED.
Jackson’s promise is quickly forgotten amid the low-energy grind of the prosecution’s first days of argument. Colonel Robert G. Storey, the Texas law professor whose faith in the power of “docamints” played a critical role in ouster of “Wild Bill” Donovan, spends the better part of two days laying out the prosecution’s case in support of the conspiracy charge. Illustrated with large cardboard trial exhibits as well as paper charts and diagrams, which are either handed up to the judges or attached to prosecution briefs, Storey’s argument is unrelievedly dull. “None of this, however carefully illustrated… was the stuff of courtroom drama,” note historians Ann and John Tusa. “The visitors and the Press became restive and bored.”
Sidney Alderman’s exhaustive presentation on the charge of Crimes Against Peace does little to stir them. For four days, from Friday, November 23 to mid-day on Thursday, November 29, Alderman lays out the US case regarding aggressive war in eye-crossing detail. Tom Dodd complains about Alderman’s approach in a December 4 letter to his wife, Grace.
DODD: SIDNEY ALDERMAN WHO HAS BEEN PRESENTING THE AGGRESSIVE WAR CASE IS A SLOW MOTION ATTORNEY WHO TAKES LONGER BY FAR THAN MOST LAWYERS WOULD TAKE TO PRESENT ANY GIVEN SUBJECT…. HIS SLOW PRESENTATION OVER A MATTER OF TWO OR THREE DAYS… TOOK ON A CERTAIN MONOTONY.
Journalist Janet Flanner, writing for the New Yorker under her pen name “Genêt,” is far less measured.
GENÊT: ON THE WHOLE, OUR LAWYERS HAVE SUCCEEDED IN MAKING THE WORLD’S MOST COMPLETELY PLANNED AND HORRIBLY MELODRAMATIC WAR DULL AND INCOHERENT.
By Day Eight, there are murmurs of doubt: is Jackson’s documentary strategy a massive… and what’s worse, boring… miscalculation?
For his part, Prisoner Number One Hermann Goering relishes the prosecution’s early missteps. On Day Eight, while detailing the Nazi annexation of Austria on March 12, 1938, Alderman quotes a March 13 phone conversation between an exultant Goering at home in Berlin and Joachim von Ribbentrop in London.
ALDERMAN: PERHAPS TO UNDERSTAND THIS CONVERSATION, WE MUST TRY TO CREATE AGAIN THE ACTUAL PHYSICAL SCENE OF THE TIME AND PLACE AS GOERING TALKED OVER THE PHONE. I QUOTE EIGHT LINES FROM PAGE 11 OF THE ENGLISH TEXT, ABOUT IN THE MIDDLE, PART W:
GOERING: WELL, DO COME! I SHALL BE DELIGHTED TO SEE YOU.
RIBBENTROP: I SHALL SEE YOU THIS AFTERNOON.
GOERING: THE WEATHER IS WONDERFUL HERE – BLUE SKY. I AM SITTING HERE ON MY BALCONY – ALL COVERED WITH BLANKETS- IN THE FRESH AIR, DRINKING MY COFFEE…. AND THE BIRDS ARE TWITTERING…
RIBBENTROP: THAT IS MARVELOUS.
It’s likely that Alderman hopes to highlight the cold-blooded behavior of Goering and the Nazi leadership as German troops spill into Austria. Instead, the anecdote effectively drains the moment of all gravitas. What’s more, it appeals to Goering’s overweening vanity. Prison psychologist Gustave Gilbert records the reaction in the dock.
GILBERT: GOERING, RIBBENTROP AND HESS HAD A GREAT LAUGH OVER THE READING OF GOERING’S TELEPHONE CONVERSATION WITH RIBBENTROP ON THE DAY OF HITLER’S TRIUMPHANT ENTRY INTO VIENNA, DESCRIBING THE WHOLE THING AS A LARK, WITH BIRDS TWITTERING, ETC.
Alderman’s attempt to paint Goering and Ribbentrop as self-indulgent villains backfires, eliciting chuckles rather than disgust. One week in, Jackson’s highly-anticipated case against Goering and the Nazi leadership is in jeopardy. The screening of Nazi Concentration Camps, then, represents a highly dramatic and overdue course correction.
The associate prosecutor responsible for the Jackson team’s “visual presentation and motion picture evidence” is 29-year old US Navy Reserve officer Commander James Britt Donovan. A graduate of Fordham and Harvard Law, the Bronx native served as general counsel for General “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), as well as heading up its War Crimes Division. (Wild Bill and James Donovan were not related). In his capacity as OSS War Crimes chief, Commander Donovan presided over the compilation of visual evidence of Nazi concentration camp atrocities gathered by the US Army Signal Corps and a group of filmmakers led by legendary Hollywood director George Stevens, who began by shooting the June, 1944 D-Day landings and ultimately bore grim witness to the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
As the beginning of the tribunal approaches, Stevens and the American prosecution team work furiously to edit the film. On November 19, the eve of trial, Donovan prepares a memo for Jackson and the Planning Committee, laying out the multiple components of his visual presentation. In his memo, Donovan anticipates the emotional effect of the motion picture evidence on the public: he notes that “Because the films speak for themselves, the introduction of them should be as simple and brief as possible.”
On Day Eight, after Tom Dodd cedes the podium to Donovan, he proves himself true to his word.
DONOVAN: THE UNITED STATES NOW OFFERS IN EVIDENCE AN OFFICIAL DOCUMENTARY MOTION PICTURE REPORT ON NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS. THIS REPORT HAS BEEN COMPILED FROM MOTION PICTURES TAKEN BY ALLIED MILITARY PHOTOGRAPHERS AS THE ALLIED ARMIES IN THE WEST LIBERATED THE AREAS IN WHICH THESE CAMPS WERE LOCATED… IF THE TRIBUNAL PLEASE, WE SHALL PROCEED WITH THE PROJECTION OF THE FILM, DOCUMENT 2430-PS, EXHIBIT USA-79.
The courtroom lights dim except for several small spots trained on the defendants in the dock, purportedly for security purposes. While they allow the guards to monitor the defendants, they also permit the assembled to study their reactions as they watch the horrors unspool before them.
CRIME STORY shares this link to the copy of Nazi Concentration Camps held in the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It is, in our estimation, the most accurate version of the film currently available online.
Documentary footage of liberated camps had already appeared in newsreels both in the United States and Europe, but nothing approaching the volume and detail of this documentary. Moreover, none of the newsreels had the clear legal intent of the film: Nazi Concentration Camps is presented first and foremost as trial evidence. The film attests to its evidentiary status by starting with still images of affidavits, signed and then read aloud by Stevens and other Signal Corps filmmakers. As film historian Lawrence Douglas observes in his seminal essay, Film as Witness: Screening Nazi Concentration Camps Before the Nuremberg Tribunal, “This gesture of self-authentication… supports the novel understanding of the documentary as a privileged witness independently competent to swear to the truth of its own images.” The film, in other words, is both surrogate prosecution witness and evidence. Nazi Concentration Camps achieves this double-duty by overwhelming the viewer with nearly an hour of utter savagery and human degradation. Seventy-five years later, Nazi Concentration Camps still has the power, in Jackson’s words, to “rob us of our sleep.”
From our visually-sophisticated 21st Century vantage point, it is difficult to appreciate fully the impact the film must have had on contemporary viewers; fortunately, various journalists and Tribunal memoirists provide their anguished perspective. Listen to Victor H. Bernstein, foreign editor of PM, an influential New York daily.
BERNSTEIN: THE IMPRESSION WE GET IS AN ENDLESS RIVER OF WHITE BODIES FLOWING ACROSS THE SCREEN, BODIES WITH RIBS STICKING OUT THROUGH THE CHESTS, WITH PIPE-STEM LEGS AND BATTERED SKULLS AND EYELESS FACES AND GROTESQUE THIN ARMS REACHING FOR THE SKY… ON THE SCREEN THERE IS NO END TO THE BODIES, TUMBLING BODIES AND BODIES IN MOUNDS AND SINGLE BODIES WITH HOLES BETWEEN THE EYES AND BODIES BEING SHOVED OVER CLIFFS INTO COMMON GRAVES AND BODIES PUSHED LIKE DIRT BY GIANT BULLDOZERS, AND BODIES THAT ARE NOT BODIES AT ALL BUT CHARRED BITS OF BONE AND FLESH LYING UPON A CREMATORY GRATE MADE OF BITS OF STEEL RAIL LAID UPON BLACKENED WOOD TIES.
Psychologist Gustave Gilbert and psychiatrist Dr. Douglas Kelley take up positions at either end of the dock in order to observe and record the defendants’ reactions in real time. Indeed, some have suggested that this, not security, was the actual reason for leaving the dock lit by spotlights. What follows is an excerpt of the psychologist’s running notes.
GILBERT: FRANK BITING HIS NAILS… FRICK SHAKES HIS HEAD INCREDULOUSLY AT SPEECH OF FEMALE DOCTOR DESCRIBING TREATMENT AND EXPERIMENTS ON FEMALE PRISONERS AT BELSEN… AS KRAMER IS SHOWN, FUNK SAYS WITH CHOKING VOICE, “THE DIRTY SWINE!”… RIBBENTROP SITTING WITH PURSED LIPS AND BLINKING EYES, NOT LOOKING AT THE SCREEN… FUNK CRYING BITTERLY, CLAPS HANDS OVER MOUTH AS WOMEN’S NAKED CORPSES ARE THROWN INTO PIT… KEITEL AND RIBBENTROP LOOK UP AT THE MENTION OF TRACTOR CLEARING CORPSES, SEE IT, THEN HANG THEIR HEADS… STREICHER SHOWS SIGNS OF DISTURBANCE FOR FIRST TIME… FILM ENDS.
Major Airey Neave, who had served the Tribunal indictments on the defendants, revisits his own impressions of the film’s aftermath.
NEAVE: AS THE LIGHTS WENT UP, I LOOKED AT THE DOCK. THE DEFENDANTS REMAINED SEATED, AS IF TURNED TO STONE. THEY WERE SLOW TO RISE WHEN THE JUDGES FILED OUT IN DISGUSTED SILENCE…. I CANNOT FORGET THE SUDDEN VISION OF THOSE TWISTED GUILTY FACES, SOME, LIKE FUNK AND FRITSCHE, WITH TEARS ON THEIR CHEEKS. I SOMETIMES DREAM OF IT. I SOUGHT FOR ANY SIGNS OF TRUE REMORSE AND DID NOT FIND THEM. THESE WERE CROCODILE TEARS. THEY WEPT FOR THEMSELVES, NOT FOR THE DEAD. THEY FEARED FOR THEIR OWN NECKS AS THEY WATCHED FILMS OF HUMBLE MEN AND WOMEN EXECUTED BY THE S.S.
Tom Dodd is explicit about the prosecution’s purpose in screening the wrenching film.
DODD: WE INTEND TO PROVE THAT EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THESE DEFENDANTS KNEW OF THE EXISTENCE OF THESE CONCENTRATION CAMPS; THAT FEAR AND TERROR AND NAMELESS HORROR OF THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS WERE INSTRUMENTS BY WHICH THE DEFENDANTS RETAINED POWER AND SUPPRESSED OPPOSITION OF THEIR POLICIES, INCLUDING, OF COURSE, THEIR PLANS FOR AGGRESSIVE WAR.
Nazi Concentration Camps opens a new, grim chapter in how we convey and interpret images of atrocities. For the first but sadly not the last time, documentary film crews captured and bore witness to some of the most revolting actions we are capable of as a species. At Nuremberg, one of Justice Jackson’s most notable achievements is that he harnesses that revulsion to his overall case against the Nazi leadership. As Douglas Lawrence notes, “By framing its horrific scenes in a narrative about perverted militarism and war’s excess, the film harmonized its imagery with Jackson’s legal argument.”
After the trial adjourns for the day, Gilbert sits with each of the defendants in their cells in order to assess their state of mind. Most were shaken, professing both disgust at the atrocities they had seen and sheer incomprehension.
GILBERT: HESS SEEMED CONFUSED, KEPT MUMBLING, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND – I DON’T UNDERSTAND.”
RIBBENTROP HAD A VISIBLE TREMOR OF THE HANDS, AND LOOKED UTTERLY BEWILDERED. “HITLER COULDN’T HAVE LOOKED AT SUCH A FILM HIMSELF. – I DON’T UNDERSTAND. – I DON’T EVEN THINK HIMMLER COULD HAVE ORDERED SUCH THINGS. – I DON’T UNDERSTAND.
ROSENBERG WAS EVEN MORE NERVOUS THAN USUAL. “IT’S AN AWFUL THING, EVEN IF THE RUSSIANS DID DO THE SAME THING – TERRIBLE – TERRIBLE – TERRIBLE…”
Gilbert concludes his survey of the defendants with a despondent Reichsmarschall. Ever the narcissist, Goering is more troubled by the optics of the moment than anything appearing on the screen.
GILBERT: AS FOR GOERING, HE WAS APPARENTLY DISTURBED BECAUSE [THE FILM] HAD SPOILED HIS SHOW. “IT WAS SUCH A GOOD AFTERNOON, TOO, UNTIL THEY SHOWED THAT FILM. – THEY WERE READING MY TELEPHONE CONVERSATIONS ON THE AUSTRIAN AFFAIR, AND EVERYBODY WAS LAUGHING WITH ME. – AND THEN THEY SHOWED THAT AWFUL FILM, AND IT JUST SPOILED EVERYTHING.”
With one brilliantly-timed maneuver, Jackson, Dodd, Donovan and the American prosecution team grab the attention of the Court, the public, and even the defendants. On Day Eight, they wrest back control of the proceedings and regain the advantage.