The Luck of the Historian


Mr. Platt, professor emeritus at California State University Sacramento, will be joining now 90 year-old Martin Dannenberg to discuss his book Bloodlines on May 7, 2006: at 2:00 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore and at 6:00 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Pikesville, Maryland.

Sometimes as a historian you need to get lucky. Serendipity played an important role in how Cecilia O’Leary, my co-researcher, and I came to write Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Paradigm Publishers, 2006).

In the summer of 1999, we were delighted to be visiting fellows at the prestigious Huntington Library in Southern California, doing research on California’s origins stories when we weren’t sitting around the pool of our rented house in always-sunny Pasadena. It was a matter of chance that Huntington officials chose June 25, soon after our arrival, to announce to worldwide media that they possessed an original copy of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws, signed by Hitler. To everybody’s surprise, the Huntington had stored this extraordinary document off the books in its most secure, bombproof vault for the previous fifty-four years without notification to the public or researchers.

Historians recognize the three laws, including the Blood Law, as an important precursor to the holocaust. It was not so much the widely known contents of the Nuremberg Laws as their symbolic value that made the Huntington’s announcement so weighty. “Uncovering them,” observed historian Saul Friedländer, “is like finding an original copy of the U. S. Constitution – but, unfortunately, it is a very evil document, signed by the man who instigated it.” Hitler’s signature on a document is not a rarity, but so far there are no signed orders linking the Führer to policies of genocide. His signature on the Nuremberg Laws is the closest we get.

At its widely reported press conference, the Huntington explained that General George S. Patton, Jr. – in tribute to his father’s long-time business relationship with Henry Edwards Huntington, founder of the Huntington Library – had donated the Nuremberg Laws as a gift to the Huntington in June 1945 during a quick visit to the Los Angeles area. The general, it was reported, owned the Nuremberg Laws because his troops had presented them to him in “a great public presentation.” When asked by the media why the Library had done nothing with the extraordinary documents for fifty-four years, its president said they did “not fall within the subject areas of scholarly research or public display of our institution.”

Over the weekend I pondered this flimsy rationale. On the following Tuesday, Huntington officials called a staff meeting to brief us on the “Hitler materials.” For me it would have been over that day if the Huntington’s president had said, “We realize that the Huntington should have made these documents available to the public long ago. We take responsibility for our institutional amnesia and have asked the National Archives to investigate provenance and title. We will abide by their determination.”

But nothing of the kind was said. Instead, the Huntington initiated a public relations campaign of self-defense that only encouraged me to dig more deeply into the relationship between the Huntingtons and Pattons, into evidence for Patton’s claim of ownership, and into the missing fifty-four years. Quickly finding accounts of Patton’s anti-Semitism in well-respected secondary sources gave me another incentive to investigate how a general who thought of Jews as a “sub-human species” ended up with a document that shared his bigotry.

It is one thing to suspect an institution of fabrication and cover up about events happening half a century ago, it is another to find compelling evidence. We got lucky. On a tip from a researcher at the National Archives, we tracked down in Baltimore and interviewed then eighty-three-year-old Martin Dannenberg, the military intelligence officer who personally had retrieved the Nuremberg Laws at the end of the war in Germany: in late April, not early March, 1945, as Patton had recalled; in Eichstätt, not Nuremberg, as Patton had remembered; and on a tip from an informer, not in the heat of battle, as Patton had fabricated. As a Jew brought up in Baltimore who remembered signs proclaiming “No Jews or Dogs” and areas of the city “restricted to refined gentiles only,” Dannenberg retained vivid and, importantly, documented memories of his discovery.

While Cecilia was back east debriefing Martin Dannenberg and making copies of notes and photographs that he had preserved since 1945, I went through the Los Angeles phone book, trying to locate relatives of Frank Perls, a well known art dealer who had died in 1975. The Jewish, German-born Perls had served in Dannenberg’s unit as his translator and interpreter. On my third call, I found his niece, Marianne Perls, in Beverly Hills. When I visited her at home a few days later, she had assembled a cache of primary materials: letters, news clippings, photographs, and an unpublished autobiography. Frank Perls’ account of the discovery of the Nuremberg Laws not only matched Dannenberg’s and gave us a plausible “counter-narrative,” but also led us to records and information that disproved Patton’s claim to ownership of the Nuremberg Laws.

My sociologist friend Ed McCaughan thinks that successful research is ninety-five percent serendipity and five percent good planning. Because I like to pretend that I’m always firmly in control of my projects, I might quibble with his percentages, but now I understand his point better. Prior to writing Bloodlines, I made a clear distinction between my academic work and my non-fiction, first-person writing. But in this book – very much influenced by the interdisciplinarity and encouragement of W. G. Sebald to follow the “threads” and “invisible connections that determine our lives” – I allowed both creative voices to coexist on the page.

As a result of my engagement with historical research as a process of discovery, Frank Perls, whom I had originally conceived as a minor character in the book, demanded my attention and led me to the compelling history of his family, from their assimilated lives in Germany of the 1920s, to their diasporic journeys to France, Cuba, and the United States. And, surprisingly, once I opened myself up to my own experiences as a secular Jew growing up in England and as an immigrant to California, I realized the importance of memoir and autobiography to the book’s themes.

The most interesting paradox of creativity, observes choreographer Twyla Tharp, is that you need to plan ahead, but “good planning alone won’t make your efforts successful; it’s only after you let go of your plans that you can breathe life into your efforts.” Little did I realize when I started my research that I would end up exploring my own bloodlines.

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    Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

    "Magnificent! Compared to war all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God (Gold) help me, I do love it so!"

    "Audacity, audacity, always audacity." -- General George S. Patton

    George S. Patton was a hero, military genius, world class athlete/ scholar, a true man's man and much admired by this poster but, as with any great man the General had enough faults to rival his California home state.

    The memorable quote that invokes God or is it gold is now more confusing with the Huntington Library findings. My thought originally was that the quote reflected the General's belief or is it disbelief in the Almighty when the word gold is attributed by some to this remark? Hopefully, one of our skilled HNN historians can help me on this quote.

    However, other than being a major historical find what is the original Nuremberg Law documents value comparable, in real dollars, to Goering's fabulous art collection, the Hesse Crown Jewels, the Amber Room or the Lipizzan Stallions so famously saved from extinction by the great man himself?

    Surely, these documents are of the greatest value or the General would not have saved, protected then secreted them away. Now they are where they truly belong... under the watchful eyes of historians.