Women played roles in war crimes trials
Seventy-five years ago, in 1946, the war crimes trials of the top Nazi leadership concluded in Nuremberg, Germany. The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union – the Allies who had defeated Nazi Germany in World War II – administered the International Military Tribunal. Included in the American delegation was a young lawyer, Katherine Fite.
Fite, a native of Boston, attended Vassar College and Yale University Law School. In the 1930s, she became an assistant to the legal adviser in the State Department. In the last six months of 1945, the State Department detailed Fite to work for Robert Jackson in the Office of the United States Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality. President Harry S. Truman appointed Jackson, a U.S. Supreme court justice, to be U.S. chief of counsel, the top American prosecutor of the Nazis.
Fite worked directly with Jackson; there is a photograph of the two attorneys seated together at a desk. (See https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/photograph-records/2004-452.)
In a letter that she wrote to her parents, Fite noted that “Justice Jackson himself has called me a number of times….” (See https://catalog.archives.gov/id/158559009.)
This letter and many others that Fite wrote from her posts in London and Germany are in her papers at the Harry S. Truman Library.
Fite’s main responsibilities involved preparing arguments and evidence to use against the Nazi defendants, who were first indicted in November 1945. In a letter that she sent to her parents, dated July 27, 1945, Fite described Berlin’s ruins as “like something of another world,” and its people as “dull,” “stolid” and “expressionless.” (See https://catalog.archives.gov/id/158559036.) On Nov. 20, she described the Nazi defendants as a “a seedy looking lot. [Hermann] Goering is in a light gray uniform – putting on a very debonair act… [Rudolf] Hess stares vacantly into space. My friend [Wilhelm] Frick looks pretty evil…I saw him watching me… [Joachim von] Ribbentrop looks like a sick cat. [The trial] hurts his vanity.”
Notably absent from the Nuremberg trials was Adolf Hitler, who had committed suicide on April 30, 1945, about a week prior to the surrender of Germany.
In another letter, Fite mentioned meeting a female lawyer from France. Fite lamented her “lack of congenial female companionship” in Europe.
Fite (later Katherine Fite Lincoln) retired from the State Department in 1962.
To commemorate Women’s History Month, in March, it’s important to recognize the contributions of Fite and those of another young female lawyer, Eleanor Bontecou, to the successful prosecution of the war crimes trials following World War II. Bontecou, a New Jersey native, earned her law degree at New York University. She became an attorney in the Civil Rights Section in the Department of Justice from 1943-1946. She then served as legal adviser in the War Crimes Branch, Civil Affairs Division, in the War Department from 1946-1947.
Bontecou’s work involved the war crimes trials in Tokyo, against Japanese defendants. She prepared legal memorandums, such as the one she wrote with regard to General Yamashita Tomoyuki’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging a military commission’s authority to try him as a war criminal.
(Yamashita’s petition did not save him from the gallows; he was executed in February 1946.) Although Bontecou did not go to Tokyo, she did visit Nuremberg, to which the War Department had sent her to report on and inspect war crimes trials there. She was notably skillful at evaluating witnesses.
(Source: https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Bontecou_Eleanor.) Bontecou’s papers are also at the Truman Library.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.