Stanford scholars expand digital database with historic records from the Nuremberg Trial

Stanford University is marking the 75th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg with a significant expansion of records from the historic trial.

Nearly 75 years ago, the Nuremberg Trial came to a close when on Oct. 1, 1946, a group of convicted Nazi leaders was sentenced by the International Military Tribunal (IMT) for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during World War II and the Holocaust.

Transfer of the Nuremberg Trial Archives to the Peace Palace, March 14, 1950. Stanford Libraries is working with the Registry of the International Court of Justice to build a complete digital corpus of this historic archive. (Image credit: National Archives of the Netherlands / ANP, CC0)

This first international military tribunal was monumental: Not only did it bring perpetrators of mass atrocities to justice, it was also the first time international law was used to prosecute individuals, including heads of state, for war crimes. In doing so, it established a legal precedent in international humanitarian law that is still relevant today.

Preserving records from the Nuremberg Trial – as well as materials from the subsequent tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions it inspired – is crucial to protecting the historic and judicial legacies of the war and acknowledging the consequences of mass atrocities, said David Cohen, director of the Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice and professor of classics in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

“‘Never again’ doesn’t mean anything unless you know what has happened and why,” said Cohen, who has partnered with Stanford Libraries to digitally archive the records and create a searchable website for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (1945-1946).

For the past seven years, Stanford Libraries has been working with the Registry of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to obtain a complete digital corpus of the Nuremberg Trial in support of the Virtual Tribunal of the Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

Building a digital space for the archives is part of Cohen’s and the Libraries’ larger vision to create a comprehensive database, known as the Virtual Tribunals Initiative, of all international criminal proceedings that deal with mass atrocities, starting from post-WWII court proceedings to contemporary cases like the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor (SPSC) or similar international criminal tribunals for Rwanda, Sierra Leone or the former Yugoslavia.

Thanks to a grant from Tad Taube and Taube Philanthropies, now, on the 75th anniversary of the first major international war crimes trial ending, a significant new collection of digital materials will be made available to the public. Launching Oct. 1 is an expanded repository of digital records, preserved in cooperation with the ICJ in the Stanford Digital Repository (SDR).

This additional collection, to be known as the Taube Archive of the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg, will allow the public to easily browse and discover the contents of over 5,000 trial records – including 250,000 pages of digitized paper documents – showing in meticulous detail the efforts of the IMT, a group of representatives from four Allied countries – the U.S., the U.K., the Soviet Union and France – who were tasked with prosecuting former officials of the Third Reich and holding them accountable for the horrific acts inflicted during World War II and the Holocaust.

Elevating individual stories

For the scholars, what makes the Nuremberg archives particularly captivating is the variety of human narratives that emerges from the variety of documents and transcripts – stories that are now easier to find thanks to Stanford’s preservation efforts.

Marie-Claude Valliant Couturier revealed the conditions under which French women existed while interned; 49 of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz survived. (Image credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Channette Alexander)

“Testimony is ultimately human narratives, and it means a lot to help keep those voices alive through time and space so that we can learn from history and hopefully better understand the implications of atrocities carried out in different cultural and historical contexts,” said Penelope Van Tuyl, associate director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice, who has also contributed to the preservation efforts and development of the Virtual Tribunals exhibit platform.

Included in the archive are firsthand accounts from the few who survived the Nazi concentration camps, including for example Marie-Claude Vaillant Couturier, a member of the French Resistance who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. She describes in great detail what she and many others had to endure: starvation, slave labor, beatings, epidemics and extreme cold – as well the daily trauma of witnessing thousands sent to gas chambers, never to return, among many other cruelties. Vaillant Couturier later became a French politician.

There are also transcripts of eyewitness accounts, including that of Hermann Gräbe, a construction manager who described the horrors of a mass execution he saw in Dubno, Ukraine. Gräbe painfully recounts how he saw a grave of over a thousand bodies, some of whom were “still moving.”

Making historical records searchable

Documents in the Taube Archive have been converted into digital files using optical character recognition technology that turns printed materials, including handwritten, typed or scanned paper files, into an electronic format that can be easily searched.

View of Nuremberg in 1945. (Image credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy Randy Cole)

“The technology will allow users to discover and cut straight to material in a really dense corpus without being an expert on the trial or being a lawyer, and that is really powerful,” Van Tuyl said.

At this stage of the project, users will be able to explore digital surrogates of trial records, including transcripts of the court hearings in English, French, German and Russian; case files; trial briefs; evidentiary exhibits filed by the prosecution and the defense; opening and closing statements; final pleas; procedural rules, orders, judgments, dissenting opinions and sentences. At a later date, more multimedia – such as film, audio recordings, photographs – will be added to the collection.

“Our intention is to make these trial archives visible to the world, via the web, using the best technology we can find, build, adopt or adapt to make scholarship easier on very complex archives,” said Michael Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian at Stanford.

Pursuing justice

For Cohen, testimonies in the archive show the lived horror of mass atrocity and violence, which is regretfully still relevant in the world today.

“It helps people understand the human consequences of the things that are going on today and to understand the human dimension of what these kinds of events mean,” said Cohen. “If we believe that understanding what’s happened in the past is important for understanding the present and thinking about the future, then these testimonies are important.”

The Center for Human Rights and International Justice and Stanford Libraries hope to establish a single destination point that can help people understand how to seek justice when crimes against humanity have occurred and how to pursue accountability for systematic and widespread violence.

By exploring previous international or domestic trials, tribunals, and commissions, people – from policymakers to human rights activists – can see what was successful in previous investigations or prosecutions, where there were failures, and how such defeats can be avoided in the future.

“Our aim is to create a resource that enables users to draw on that experience and knowledge in ways that can assist governments, institutions and experts in improving how we achieve accountability for mass atrocity crimes,” said Cohen.

Cohen is also the WSD-HANDA Professor in Human Rights and International Justice.

Digitizing all the records from the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal Trial Archives is ongoing. Eventually, the online database will include digital versions of film, audio recordings and photographs that will also include links and annotations.

Media Contacts

Gabrielle Karampelas, Stanford Libraries: (650) 497-4414, gkaram@stanford.edu