The Nuremberg Laws

Last Wednesday, I visited the Huntington Library in California to receive the original Nuremberg Laws on behalf of the U.S. Government. The laws were signed by Adolf Hitler and issued by the Third Reich in 1935. The Nuremberg Laws will become part of the National Archives Gift Collection.

The Nuremberg Laws were the anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany that stripped away their citizenship, forbid marriage to Germans, and created the swastika flag. The laws led to the death of six million Jews and millions of others in concentration camps. By 1942, much of the world, civilian and soldier alike, had been affected by these four typewritten pages.

Historian Peter Lowenberg describes the significance of the Nuremberg Laws:

The Nuremberg Laws represent a major step in the increasing marginalization of Jews from German life. In order to carry out the program of the Final Solution, the target group first has to be marginalized, and removed from the code of citizenship. This is a critical moment. This legally excludes them. The next step is humiliation — Kristalnacht, 1938 — then the wearing of yellow stars, then deportation, and then finally the death camps.

The laws should have been used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials as proof of the war crimes committed by the Nazis. The American staff for Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson — who had been appointed Chief of Counsel for the United States — had decided to prosecute using Nazi documents and records, rather than rely on eyewitness reports. But they did not have the original Nuremberg Laws.


Nuremberg Trials. Defendants in their dock: Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel in front row, circa 1945-1946 (see citation below).

Wilhelm Frick and Rudolf Hess, Nazi officials who had signed parts of the laws, sat in the courtroom as defendants. The originals had disappeared and could not be submitted as evidence. On December 13, Major William F. Walsh, Assistant Trial Counsel for the United States used photostat copies taken from the Reichsgesetzblatt (Reich Legal Gazette), the equivalent of Germany’s Federal Register at that time.

How did the Nuremberg Laws end up in California?

In violation of a direct command from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General George S. Patton removed the documents from Germany and gave them to the director of the Huntington Library. It is not clear why General Patton violated the order.

The Nuremberg Trials began in November 1945, six months after Patton deposited the laws at the Library.  In December 1945, Patton died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Germany. The Nuremberg Laws remained in a vault at the Huntington Library for more than 50 years until they were loaned to the Skirball Cultural Center in 1996.



Page of the Nuremberg Laws called the “Reichs Flag Law”
with Adolf Hitler’s Signature

See more images of the Nuremberg Laws

At the National Archives, the laws will be in the company of Record Group 238, the National Archives’ Collection of World War II War Crimes Records, which includes the war diaries of Joseph Goebbels and General Alfred Jodl, as well as the registers from Dachau and Mauthausen concentration camps. There are over 1,034 boxes of textual records alone, including the photostats and translations used at the Nuremberg Trials.

Soon, the Nuremberg Laws will be on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. The public will have a chance to contemplate these laws, which are a reminder of history and the imperative lessons we must never forget. As Elie Wiesel said in his book Night, “For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”

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5 thoughts on “The Nuremberg Laws

  1. I wonder whether documents such as these will ever be returned to Germany’s ‘National Archives’? I do understand why they have been brought to the US, obviously, but think it might be more appropriate to have them back in Germany over time. How are your thoughts on this? (By the way, I’m an archivist from the Netherlands.)

  2. I agree with Christian. These papers are not our property; they belong to the Germans. And what purpose is served putting them on display in the Rotunda next to documents of liberty except to say, “Look at how much better we are than those horrible Germans”? As spoils of war, they should be returned. Let the Germans decide where they should be put on display and by whom. This argument is in keeping with recent efforts to return works of art looted from German museums and archives by the allies in the aftermath of WWII, (in addition to works looted by the Nazis in France and other countries). Furthermore, there is the program to return financial assets and art works stolen by the Nazis to the families German Jews that perished in the the death camps. All of these are good reasons for us to follow suit.

  3. Christian and Peter: You raise some interesting questions. I will leave it to others to address the location of the planned exhibit of the Nuremberg Laws and instead address the issue of the documents themselves and the National Archives role in dealing with Holocaust-Era Assets. In doing so I do not speak for the Archivist of the United States nor the National Archives and Records Administration; but do so as an archivist with the National Archives involved with World War II records for the past thirty years.

    Before more fully responding to the questions regarding why NARA does not return the Nuremberg Laws to Germany, I should note that another original of the Nuremberg Laws is in Germany, at the Documentation Center in Nuremberg.

    In early June 1945 General George S. Patton, commanding general of the U.S. Third Army, returned to California and gave the Huntington Library the Nuremberg Laws that had been captured by a U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps detachment and given to him. In doing so, Patton was violating directives that he had received from Generals Eisenhower and Brady dealing with the seizing and holding of German Government and Nazi Party records.

    Had General Patton followed policies and procedures, it is likely that the Nuremberg Laws would have been turned over to the Enemy Documents Section, Third Army Intelligence Center at Freising where captured German records were being stored and exploited for various purposes, including their possible use as evidence for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Some captured documents were found at Freising and used by the Office of Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality. Those documents came to the National Archives in 1947 and became part of the National Archives Collection of WWII War Crimes Records, Record Group 238. The Nuremberg Laws, had Patton not taken the action he did, may have been used by the prosecutors and accessioned into the National Archives along with the other trial records, which include a quantity of original German documents. Among them are 39 German-produced volumes of photographs of cultural property looted by the Germans. Several years ago two other such albums were located in the United States, after being brought back to the United States after the war by an American soldier, and donated to the National Archives in accordance with provisions of 44 U.S.C. 2107-(4) and 44 U.S.C. 2111-(2), laws dealing with the acceptance of such donated material. These two albums, as well as the Nuremberg Laws, were placed in the National Archives Gift Collection, where they can be used in conjunction with the related records in Record Group 238 noted above. In some respects the Nuremberg Laws came to us 63 years later than they would have had not Patton taken them to California.

    For over sixty years the United States Government and the National Archives and Records Administration have taken numerous actions to ensure, where appropriate and in accordance with laws and agreements, the return of captured enemy records. These actions began in Germany itself, when the U.S. Army returned some captured records as early as 1945. And the National Archives, even before agreements were finalized regarding the disposition of captured records, returned to Germany the personal and official papers of famous German military leaders, including von Moltke and von Schlieffen. During the 1950s the National Archives returned to Japan over 10,000 cubic feet of records and began the return of captured German records. Before the latter were returned they were microfilmed, and today the National Archives has custody of over 70,000 microfilm rolls of captured German records. In 1994 the U.S. Government turned over to the Germans the Berlin Document Center and during the past decade the National Archives has taken action to return captured records, such as the records of the Smolensk Oblast of the All-Union Communist Party of the Soviet Union. These records had been captured first by the Germans and then taken from them by the Americans. For various reasons captured records are not always returned to the country of origin, but I would estimate over 99 percent are eventually.

    Based on the history outlined above, and the fact that Germany has in its possession an original copy of the Nuremberg Laws, we believe retention of the recently donated copies by the National Archives is proper. In all cases, the United States Government and the National Archives will continue to ensure the appropriate and legal disposition of captured records, including donated materials. And the United States Government and the National Archives will continue, whenever possible, to ensure that improperly taken wartime souvenirs are returned to their rightful owners or successors. Just last year the National Archives and State Department facilitated the return to the German Government of two 16th century German law books that one of Patton’s soldiers had taken in Germany in April 1945 and brought home to California with him.

    As to the return of cultural property and looted assets, let me end this comment, by noting that the National Archives has been at the forefront of the issue since 1996. Staff members have served as members of the United States official delegations to conferences on Holocaust-Era Assets at Washington, D.C. (1998) and Vilnius (2000); participated at the conference at Prague (2009); and, testified before Congress on the issue. We have produced a 1,100-page finding aid to Holocaust-Era Assets records in our holdings and established on our website a section dedicated to Holocaust-Era Assets records information. For wider access, we have microfilmed thousands of boxes of such material, digitized them, and are now working with our European partners, including the German Bundesarchiv, to launch a Digital Archives of Holocaust-Era Assets records. We have accomplished a lot, but we know that more work is needed if our holdings can continue to help in the process of turning history into justice.

  4. Brad, am in total agreement with everything you have said. I am Martin Dannenberg’s daughter and grew up hearing the story from my father, who is the Army Officer who originally obtained those documents. Had he been less honest and loyal to his country and his leader’s orders, he may have kept them for himself. But he did the honorable thing and turned them over to Gen. Patton. Every few years when we, as children, asked about the documents, he would contact the Archives to inquire as to their whereabouts. He always received the same answer…they had no idea as to where they were. Now we know the whole story. Since Germany has an original copy, i feel that our Archives should retain this one. Perhaps it could be loaned to the Holocaust Museum, but otherwise they belong to the U.S. government and are now in their rightful place.

  5. @Greg: Thank you for your reply! I learned a lot from it — interesting to read all of this. I have little knowledge of the history of these captured records, and the efforts to return them to Germany, nor did I know of the large programs for returning them, digitizing them, or making them available in another way. I also didn’t know that Germany already had another original copy of the same documents (which perhaps doesn’t really matter in regard to the location of other copies, archivistically speaking), so your response really gave me a lot of insight in this whole topic. A lot of work may need to get done still, but clearly a load has been done already.

    @Betsy: Thanks for your response as well — it adds a nice personal touch to the whole story.

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