“When you see history happening, try to get a front-row seat.”
That’s one of the life lessons that the late Edith Simon Coliver imparted to her daughters, Sandy and Susie, as they were growing up in San Francisco. And it’s a lesson that Coliver, who died in 2001, took to heart.
A Jewish refugee, Coliver fled Nazi Germany in 1938 with her immediate family. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she learned of the precedent-setting International Military Tribunal for Nazi officials set to take place in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1945 and 1946. She jumped at the opportunity to get a front-row seat at the war crimes trials and served as an interpreter for Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring.
Coliver’s daughters told J. that they grew up hearing about their mother’s early life and her work at the Nuremberg trials. She recounted how Göring expressed his displeasure at having a Jew serve as his interpreter. (He was subsequently convicted of wartime atrocities and sentenced to death, but he committed suicide before his execution date.)
It wasn’t exactly a front-row seat for Sandy and Susie Coliver — but it was close.
Soon, many others will join the Colivers in gaining access to firsthand, first-person accounts. Thanks to a generous investment by Bay Area–based Taube Philanthropies announced last month, Stanford Libraries has begun the task of bringing together under one digital roof the archives of the International Military Tribunal. The Taube IMT Archive, as it will be called, will take several years to complete. However, portions of the archive will be accessible starting next year to scholars, students and anyone interested in what transpired at Nuremberg, according to Tom Cramer, a librarian for Digital Library Systems and Services at Stanford Libraries.
For decades, information about the IMT has been scattered around the world. While much of the official documentation of the trials was housed at the Peace Palace Library at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where it had already been digitized, some of it could be accessed only by in-person visits to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Still other parts of the history were buried in university libraries as far afield as Harvard and Berkeley.
For scholars such as Diane Marie Amann, who is writing a book about professional women at the Nuremberg trials, the consolidation of archival and research materials is welcome and long overdue. “A lot of the work I’ve been doing is needle-in-a-haystack type of work,” said Amann, a University of Georgia School of Law professor, who formerly taught at UC Davis School of Law.
That is precisely one of the problems that the Taube IMT Archive will remedy, said David Cohen, the director of Stanford’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, which is a partner in this project. He noted that Stanford’s “innovative software platforms” will include sophisticated yet easy-to-use search devices that will allow researchers to locate needed information in a matter of minutes. What’s more, he said, the archive will feature film and still photography, along with “a complete audio record of the trial that has never been digitized” and, thus, rarely heard.
The Taube IMT Archive, Cohen said, is “the pillar of the larger collection that we hope to build,” which would also include digitized archives of the 12 trials subsequent to the IMT at Nuremberg and the 489 U.S. military commission trials that were conducted at Dachau, often referred to as “the concentration camp cases.” Taube Philanthropies has already committed some funding for the Dachau tribunal archives.
Cramer of Stanford Libraries said about a dozen university and library professionals will work to organize hundreds of thousands of pages of textual documents, along with thousands of audio files and other materials. The International Court of Justice authorized Stanford Libraries to serve as the digital repository of IMT materials because it was aware of Stanford’s “robust digital preservation capabilities,” Cramer noted.
Scholars, attorneys, and human rights workers consider the Nuremberg IMT war crimes trial and the 12 trials that followed groundbreaking on multiple levels.
“It was the first tribunal that used international law to prosecute a government,” Cohen said. And because those tried at Nuremberg included a huge swath of Nazi party members — those in the upper echelons of the party, as well as their subordinates — it demonstrated that “the perpetrators who sat at their desks” pushing papers and signing orders for deportations and mass killings were as culpable as their superiors. “The cooperation of all of them was necessary,” he said.
Stanford political science professor Terry Lynn Karl, who testifies as an expert in war crimes trials in Latin America, echoed her colleague, noting that after Nuremberg, it was no longer a sufficient defense to say that you were less guilty of a crime because you were “following orders.” It also was the first time, she said, that a court had prosecuted on charges of crimes against humanity and crimes against peace (wars of aggression). All subsequent prosecutions against war criminals — in Argentina, El Salvador, Rwanda, Chile and Guatemala, for instance — are based on precedents set at Nuremberg.
Tad Taube, the founder of Taube Philanthropies who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford, said that his decision to fund a major project at Stanford Libraries “took about a microsecond” to make. “Everything about this archive has personal ramifications for me,” said Taube, who escaped with his immediate family from Poland in the late 1930s.
In a way, Taube added, “it’s my history. Most of the war crimes took place in Poland.”