Courtesy of guest blogger Lawrence Douglas.
One of the most astonishing and iconic photographs from the Nuremberg trial shows Thomas Dodd gazing at a shrunken head, which he holds before him, like Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick. Earlier, Dodd had all but apologized for submitting the unusual piece of evidence to the court: “We do not wish to dwell on th[e] pathological phase of the Nazi culture; but we do feel compelled to offer one additional exhibit, which we offer as Exhibit Number USA-254.” Displayed on a table in the center of the crowded Nuremberg courtroom was, as Dodd explained, the head of a former Polish inmate at Buchenwald, “with the skull bone removed, shrunken, stuffed, and preserved.”
The exhibit scandalized the tribunal and observers alike. “At the time when Buchenwald was overrun,” the correspondent for The Times (of London) wrote, “many persons refused to believe the accounts….But here in court was the proof — the preserved head of a hanged Pole, which, by removing the skull bones, had been reduced to the size of a fist…”
Admittedly, Dodd’s shrunken head was of minor evidentiary value, as it did little to clarify the guilt of the twenty-one major Nazi war criminals who sat in the Nuremberg dock. Indeed, one could argue that the sensational and morbid artifact served no legal purpose—beside shocking the court. But I think it would be wrong to see the shrunken head of Buchenwald as simply a freak display, a circus sideshow in what otherwise was a grave legal drama. To the contrary, I would argue that the head served not to distract but to symbolize—it represented and displayed Nuremberg’s core understanding of Nazi atrocity.
In the iconic photo, Dodd gazes at the shrunken head contemplatively. He beholds it not as a curio but as an enigma and a question. In his opening address before the tribunal, François de Menthon, the chief French prosecutor, wondered, “How can we explain how Germany, fertilized through the centuries of classic antiquity and Christianity, by the ideals of liberty, equality, and social justice, by the common heritage of western humanism to which she had brought such noble and precious contributions, could have come to this astonishing return to primitive barbarism?”
Dodd’s gaze asks the same question: How could the land of Bach, Beethoven and Goethe revert to head-shrinking? Historians in the years following Nuremberg would hazard scores of answers to the question, locating pathological strains in Germany’s violent history, arguing that Germany was somehow exceptional, its embrace of modernity incomplete, twisted and vulnerable.
Nuremberg, by contrast, never entirely answered the question raised by Dodd’s gaze and Menthon’s address. For his part, the French prosecutor described Nazism as an uncontrolled outpouring of “all the instincts of barbarism, repressed by centuries of civilization, but always present in men’s innermost nature, all the negations of the traditional values of humanity.”
In presenting Nazi atrocity as atavistic, the Nuremberg prosecution hazarded a view of civilization fundamentally at odd with Enlightenment sensibilities and the Whig theory of history that issued from it. After Nuremberg, head-shrinking could no longer be seen as an irrevocably ancient and foreign practice; rather, it lurked just beneath the thin veneer of civilization. This was the radical suggestion materialized in the form of the shrunken head that fit neatly in Dodd’s open palm. Or as Menthon insisted, Nazism showed the world “that the work of twenty centuries of civilization, which believed itself eternal,” could, at the slightest provocation, be “destroyed by the return of ancient barbarism in a new guise.”
—Lawrence Douglas, James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought at Amherst College. His newest book, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, will be published by Princeton in January 2016.
The majority of the letters from Tom Dodd to his wife Grace have been published and can be found in Letters from Nuremberg, My father’s narrative of a quest for justice. Senator Christopher J. Dodd with Lary Bloom. New York: Crown Publishing, 2007.
Images available in Thomas J. Dodd Papers.