“It is history and it is fascinating”: Katherine Fite and the Nuremberg War Crime Trials, 1945

Today’s post comes from Tammy Williams, archivist and social media coordinator at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

In 1945, while Katherine Fite worked as an Assistant to the Legal Advisor in the State Department, her supervisor recommended her for a temporary assignment as an assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson with the Office of the United States Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminalitywhat would become the Nuremberg War Crime Trials.

Katherine B. Fite and Justice Robert H. Jackson shown seated together, ca. 1945. (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, National Archives)

Katherine graduated from Vassar College in 1926 and received her law degree from Yale in 1930. Before coming to the State Department in 1937, she worked as an attorney with the General Claims Commission. She received her assignment to work with Justice Jackson in July 1945 and traveled to London to meet with him while he attended the London Conference, which aimed to establish procedures for the war crimes trials. From there, she traveled to Nuremberg, where Katherine assisted in the preparation of evidence and arguments for the trial of the Major War Criminals.  

While in London and Nuremberg, Katherine wrote vividly descriptive letters to her parents, which she later donated to the Truman Library. She describes her excitement and trepidation about flying for the first time, getting the opportunity to meet important people, and participating in and witnessing firsthand such an historic event. She also describes the less glamorous side of life in postwar Europe—seeing the concentration camps, the destruction of Germany, people trying to rebuild their lives, and interviewing Hitler’s accomplices.

Prior to the beginning of the Nuremberg War Crime Trials, the Four Powers (France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) met in London to plan strategy and procedure for the trial. Near the end of July, a group from the meeting went to Nuremberg to inspect the trial site. Katherine is the only woman in this picture and one of only two women who went, the other being Justice Robert Jackson’s secretary. Justice Jackson is likely the man fourth from the right in the bow tie.  

Delegation from the Four Powers inspect Nuremberg, Germany, in preparation for the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, ca. 1945. (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, National Archives)

The Army issued this ration card to Katherine Fite while she worked in London before going to Nuremberg to begin working on the trial. In one of her letters to her parents, Katherine notes, “[t]he Army runs a vast socialist organization. You go to the PX with a ration card and buy what they have, not what you want. Never the same brand of toothpaste, but that keeps you from getting in a rut.”

In September, Katherine related to her parents the details of a visit to Munich and nearby Dachau concentration camp. She writes: “A group of low buildings constituted the horrible part of the camp—the torture chambers—the crematoria—the gas chamber and a place where they piled the unburned corpses. The last two were the worst. . . . It is really impossible to believe that the neighborhood didn’t know about it. The room where they stored the undisposed of corpses, as things crowded up towards the end, still had blood on the walls and even the ceilings.”  

Letter from Katherine Fite to Mr. and Mrs. Emerson Fite, page 3, 9/17/1945. (National Archives Identifier 158559087)

In this letter, Katherine writes to her parents of the advantages of being one of the only women stationed in Nuremberg with the prosecution team. She attended two parties at Justice Jackson’s residence in honor of Senator Claude Pepper, who was visiting Nuremberg. She notes “[y]ou see, the panel of eligible women for such parties is small. So I always get there and usually get the seat of honor. It’s fun, also an effort when you’re tired—as I am today.”  

On the eve of the Nuremberg War Crime Trials in November, Katherine wrote to her parents and mentioned attending the final interview of Wilhelm Frick. Frick served as Reich Minister of the Interior from 1933 to 1943 and Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia from 1943 to 1945. Earlier, Katherine helped to engineer Frick’s first interrogation, and in a letter to her parents called him a “ratty, shifty looking man.” This time, she noted that he gave the “impression of being paralyzed with stage fright.” She wrote that “[a]nd when I feel sorry for Frick I think of the Jewish babies that were gassed.” The tribunal ultimately convicted and hanged Frick.

Katherine completed her detail and returned home at the end of December 1945. She traveled by train from Nuremberg to Paris and spent Christmas Eve there. On Christmas Day, she visited a friend from college. From Paris, she traveled to Le Havre to board the ship Vulcania. 

At the end of her letter, she comments: “Europe is a sad, worn out continent. I’m glad to leave. The U.S. is sitting atop the world. I’ve been reading Time—European edition—this evening, & I realize how remote & exuberant & luxurious the U. S. is going to seem. We have to run the world—but the vast majority have no idea what the rest of the world is like. And how can equilibrium be maintained between wealth and energy on the one hand and poverty and exhaustion on the other?”

Letter from Katherine Fite to Mr. and Mrs. Emerson Fite, page 8, 12/28/1945. (National Archives Identifier 158559219)

In December 1945, Katherine returned to her position in the Department of State. In 1957 she married Francis Lincoln, and in 1962, she retired from the State Department. 

All of the letters that Katherine wrote to her parents, along with transcripts and other items, are fully digitized and available here in the National Archives Catalog.  

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