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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 & 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, & created the swastika flag. The laws led to the death of six million Jews & millions of other people in concentration camps. By 1942, much of the globe, civilian & 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, & 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, & 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 & 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, & Keitel in front row, circa 1945-1946 (see citation below).

Wilhelm Frick & 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 Globe War II War Crimes Records, which includes the war diaries of Joseph Goebbels & General Alfred Jodl, as well as the registers from Dachau & Mauthausen concentration camps. There are over 1,034 boxes of textual records alone, including the photostats & 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 novel Night, “For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources & its magnitude, &, of course, its consequences.”

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Updated: September 1, 2010 — 10:24 pm

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