Nazi-era war crimes cases made available online for first time

A
a
-
Members of the Legal Committee of the UNWCC meeting in Lansdowne House, 1946

Thousands of Nazi-era war crimes cases have been made available online for the first time.

Housed in an archive at the United Nations, the 2,200 documents have until now been fiercely guarded.

Following a campaign led by Dr Dan Plesch, chair of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD), the documents are now available to the public.

Described by Plesch as “genuine horror reading”, the files include evidence of torture, rape and murder of the inhabitants of towns, villages and camps all over Europe and Asia.

The documents show how, in response to Nazi terror, a global system of law and courts was established by 16 countries – the United Nations War Crimes Commission. The commission investigated allegations of war crimes committed by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War.

Committees met in air raid shelters in the Royal Courts of Justice, as V1 and V2 missiles rained down on London in 1944.

The newly accessible cases will be referred to at the first ever conference on the United Nations War Crimes Commission of 1943 – 1948.

The conference will evaluate the potential contribution of the Commission’s work to contemporary efforts for international criminal justice and human rights advocacy. 

“It should be easier to prosecute rape as a war crime now that we have found that the international community supported rape prosecutions by many countries in the 1940s, when it was thought this never happened,” Plesch told historyextra.

“It makes it hard to argue that rape should not be considered a war crime today. Similarly, low-level soldiers were routinely prosecuted in the 1940s whereas nowadays prosecutions follow the Nuremburg pattern of charging the leadership.

“I’m delighted the files have been made available, but there’s still a huge number of files yet to be made public.

“A lot of these files were buried during the Cold War, and so the great work done by this commission was forgotten.

“Scholars who went looking for these documents found the working incredibly difficult. I was threatened with being banned from the archive for going off to a coffee shop to tell my colleagues as much as I could remember of what I had read.

“You need bloody-minded persistence.”

Plesch continued: “I hesitate to adopt superlatives about the ‘great Nazi secret’, but these files make the hairs stand on end.”

To view the Nazi-era war crimes cases, visit www.legal-tools.org

The conference, ‘Reinforcing International Human Rights Standards: Lessons from the United Nations War Crimes Commission’, will take place on 10 and 11 September.

To find out more about the conference, and to register to attend, click here