May 17, 2007
Whose Nuremberg Laws are they?
Skirball display of original typescript stirs questions about acquisition, stewardship of infamous Nazi document
(Page 4 - Previous Page)It's interesting that in my conversations with both the Skirball's Kirschner and the Huntington's Koblik, they both pointed out that for historians, the typescripts have little worth. The typescript contains no information not readily available elsewhere -- and they don't in any way advance our knowledge. It was not a secret document -- on the contrary, the Nuremberg Laws were immediately published all over the Germany. The Huntington's copy also is not unique -- another one is in Nuremberg. The document's value resides in the signatures, both said. Its appeal is fetishistic. It is a totem.
Which is exactly why it's important to see the typescript and the signatures for oneself. The laws are just four sheets of typed paper. They look so bland that it is easy for one's eyes to glaze over just staring at them. And yes, it is their apparent banality that makes them so important.
That the Nuremberg Laws were no secret is also part of what makes them so chilling. So much discussion of the Nazi era and the final solution has to do with "secret" plans to exterminate the Jews. So often in discussing the Holocaust, one wonders: Who knew what and when? But here there are no secrets. The Jews are written off, literally in a few paragraphs.
The writing on the paper became the writing on the wall -- heralding the fate of the Jews.
And then there's the fact that they are "laws." One of the main tenets of modern civilization is the regard for the moral underpinning of the rule of law. It is what we cherish about this country -- and what we are willing to fight for in other countries. The just exercise of the law is, we continue to believe, the solution to global, regional and local conflicts. So it is all the more frightening to see how pseudolaws enabled the Nazi regime.
Just as the Nazis built their philosophy of National Socialism on the pseudoscience of eugenics and racial theory, they also built the legitimacy of their anti-Semitic campaign on the foundation of pseudolaws, such as the Nuremberg Laws signed not only by Hitler but by Justice Minister Gurtner.
One is reminded of the final scene in Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg," in which Jannings, the Nazi judge, tells Haywood, the American prosecutor, that he did not imagine the Nazi's actions would lead to the death camps, and Haywood responds that "it came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent." The power of the Nuremberg Laws is that we already know what happened once they were passed.
The lesson, as I see it, is that more often than we would like to believe, things are as they seem: The Huntington, to the visitor, feels like a WASP enclave, inhospitable to outsiders -- turns out it was.
The story of how the Nuremberg Laws turned up in the Huntington's vault and how Patton acquired them seemed too good to be true -- turns out it was.
The Huntington's loan of the documents to the Skirball was a generous act, intended to express a new willingness on the part of the Huntington to reach out to fellow L.A. institutions, and to a Jewish one at that -- it was.
Platt discovered that in telling a story about social justice, racism and anti-Semitism, he reconnected with his own personal history. Born Jewish, Platt discovered he was Jewish (and I don't mean that glibly -- I mean that in a deeper sense).
And finally, the Nuremberg Laws were no secret -- they, too, meant what they said. That Jews were no longer citizens, and their life and lives would no longer be treated as having value.
Go see the Nuremberg Laws -- sooner rather than later. They are at the Skirball, but they are on loan. And the Huntington means it. They may not be there forever.
Take your children and your friends. Don't let their eyes glaze over. Let them know what they are witnessing. Tell them that laws are made by men, but governments can pervert them. Show them the power of a signed piece of paper.
Gen. George S. Patton, right, presents Huntington Trustee Chairman Robert A. Millikan the packet containing the original copies of the Nuremberg Laws on June 11, 1945
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.