May 17, 2007
Whose Nuremberg Laws are they?
Skirball display of original typescript stirs questions about acquisition, stewardship of infamous Nazi document
Although originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights can be found at the National Archives in Washington, and the Magna Carta and the Rosetta Stone are part of the collection of the British Library in London, how many people know that there is an original typescript of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, signed by Adolf Hitler, Wilhem Frick (minister of the interior), Franz Gurtner (minister of justice) and Rudolf Hess (Hitler's deputy) on display here in Los Angeles at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum. I've been to the Skirball on many occasions, but how many times have I walked by the case and not paid attention to its contents?
How the Nuremberg Laws came to California in the possession of Gen. George S. Patton, who left them to reside first at the Huntington Museum and Library in Pasadena and now at the Skirball, is a story explored in the recently released book, "Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's Nuremberg Laws From Patton's Trophy to Public Memorial" by Anthony M. Platt and Cecilia E. O'Leary" (Paradigm).
Platt, a professor emeritus at Cal State Sacramento, and his wife, O'Leary, professor of American history at Cal Sate Monterey Bay, write that "little did we imagine that ... [writing this book] would lead us to an exploration of modern European history, Nazi legislation, the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism, fascist sympathies among California's elite and the cultural politics of libraries ... and [for Platt] would trigger an exploration of contradictions in my own Jewish identity."
Along the way, they conclude that Patton "looted and violated his own orders" in taking the documents as his own, as Platt recently told me. But as to who has proper claim to the papers, how we should regard the Huntington's role in conserving them (and keeping them secret for a half century), the Skirball's choices in displaying them and why we should care about this typescript of the laws is a larger discussion.
First the facts:
The Nuremberg Laws -- so-named because Hitler ordered their passage during the 1935 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg -- consist of three directives:
- The Reich Flag Law made the swastika the national symbol, and at the same time, prohibited Jews from hoisting the flag. It was signed by Hitler, Interior Minister Frick and Gen. Werner von Blomberg, minister of war.
- The Citizenship Law prohibited Jews from being German citizens, thereby stripping German Jews of their citizenship in their own country. It was signed by Hitler and Frick.
- The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor barred Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with non-Jews. It also prohibited Jews from employing Germans under 45 as servants. It was signed by Hitler, Frick, Justice Minister Gurtner and Hess.
Dated Sept. 15, 1935, these laws were approved unanimously by the Nazi government and printed and distributed throughout Germany the next day.
Almost a decade later, on June 11, 1945, Patton presented an envelope containing the Nuremberg Laws to Huntington trustee Robert Millikan. Patton had grown up in Pasadena, and his father had been a personal friend of Edward Huntington, the library's founder. In depositing the papers, Patton asked that there be no press and that the envelope be safeguarded in the Huntington's vault. Two months earlier, Patton had sent the Huntington a presentation copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" inscribed by Patton to the Huntington.
While he was there, Patton dictated a statement describing how he had come into possession of the laws -- he explained that in Nuremberg, the troops of the 90th Infantry "found a vault, not opened, and persuaded a German to open it for them. In it they found this thing." Patton went on to explain that the soldiers arranged for Gen. James A. Van Vleet, commander of the 90th, to make a public presentation of the laws to Patton. "So it is my property," Patton concluded.
Patton returned to Europe. Six months later, on Dec. 21, 1945, Patton died from injuries received in a car accident.
Fifty-four years after Patton's visit to the library, on June 26, 1999, the Huntington revealed to the world that a rare, original copy of the laws, which had been in their possession since 1945, would soon go on public display -- at the Skirball Cultural Center on "indefinite loan." The loan was being made, the Huntington declared, as a gesture of support and friendship to the Skirball, which had opened in its new home in the Sepulveda Pass in 1996. The Skirball revealed the documents in a public display a few days later.
At the time the loan was announced, Huntington president Robert Skotheim said he hoped this loan would be seen as outreach by the Huntington, a traditionally insular institution. "We now feel we have a broader obligation to serve the public," Skotheim told the Christian Science Monitor.
Instead, as Platt recounts, press accounts at the time, most notably by Sharon Waxman (then of the Washington Post; today she reports for The New York Times) were more interested in why the Huntington kept the documents secret for more than 50 years and why they were never displayed or loaned to other institutions. Skotheim offered several explanations: Patton had asked that they be put in the vault, and they were not released or shared or noted because they did not relate to the Huntington's other collections or to the focus of the research done there. The press reports remained skeptical.
At the time, authors Platt and O'Leary were spending the summer at the library as Huntington fellows, researching California cultural history. They immediately became engaged by the unfolding story and began the study that would eventually become "Bloodlines."