The Local Germany (20 August 2015)
Fifty years ago this week, one of post-war Germany’s most controversial series of trials drew to a close.
The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials had been running since December 1963 – and by August 19th 1965, 22 personnel who had held official roles at the notorious concentration camp during the Holocaust had appeared in the dock.
These weren’t the first Auschwitz trials. In 1947, most of the camp’s senior leaders were tried and sentenced to death in Krakow, Poland, for violent crimes and torturing prisoners.
The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials brought the total number of defendants up to 789 – but with around 6,500 of the camp’s former recruits still alive at the time, this still meant that only some 12 per cent of surviving Auschwitz workers ever appeared in court.
Yet perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Frankfurt trials was how the workers’ crimes were defined.
The definition of murder
The 1947 Krakow trials charged defendants based on the international legal definition of crimes against humanity.
But by the time the 1963 Frankfurt trials began things had changed – and not everyone who might previously have been ruled a murderer could still be so.
Earlier in 1963, a German court had tried KGB (Soviet intelligence) assassin Bohdan Stashynsky for a string of murders in the 1950s.
Yet Stashynsky was acquitted of murder, as he had merely acted on the instructions of his superiors. He was instead convicted of being an accomplice to murder.
This court ruling carried a crucial implication: that in a totalitarian system, the only people who could be charged with murder were those with the power to make executive decisions.
This meant that any Auschwitz worker who had killed prisoners under orders from a Nazi superior could only be convicted of being an accomplice to murder.
This wasn’t to say that workers couldn’t be charged with murder. However, for this to happen, it would have to be proven that the defendant had acted on their own initiative.
For example, a gas chamber operator responsible for thousands of deaths would not be convicted of murder if he had simply acted on orders.
Meanwhile, a guard who beat a single inmate to death of his own volition could be tried for murder.
Criticism of the trial
The prosecution was led by Hessian State Attorney General Fritz Bauer, who himself had briefly been imprisoned in the Heuberg concentration camp in 1933.
As far as Bauer was concerned, the 1963-65 Frankfurt Trials were a failure – and not just because such a small proportion of Auschwitz workers were convicted.
“Bauer was certainly very critical of the fact that media coverage of the trials focused on the so-called ‘excessive offenders’,” Werner Renz of the Fritz-Bauer Institute told The Local.
“Highly-ranked SS officers such as assistant camp commanders Robert Mulka and Karl Höcker, whose responsibility and involvement were extremely significant, received much less media coverage,” he added.
In an essay published shortly after the trial, entitled: “Im Namen des Volkes [In the Name of the People],” Bauer criticised several aspects of the trial.
The Supreme Court demanded proof that defendants had knowingly and deliberately broken the law, Bauer wrote – meaning that prosecutors would have to prove an SS worker had carried out homicides in full knowledge that they could be convicted for their actions.
“None of those involved said that they had been aware of the injustice of their actions,” Bauer wrote.
This prevented many SS workers from being sentenced, he claimed – writing that a “corporate protection barrier” was established.
Bauer also criticised the courts’ tendency to rule that defendants had simply been accomplices to murder.
This conjured a type of “wishful thinking that in the totalitarian Nazi state, only a few people were responsible,” he wrote.
The German public could thus convince themselves that it was just Hitler and a few allies who were responsible, while everybody else was simply a violated and terrorized follower, dehumanized and forced to do things that were completely alien to them, Bauer wrote.
People could tell themselves “that Germany wasn’t a possessed, Nazi-obsessed country: it was simply taken over by an enemy.”
But this really was just wishful thinking, Bauer argued – and had little to do with the historical facts.
“Before Hitler, Germany was home to fierce nationalists, imperialists and anti-Semites,” he wrote. “Without them, Hitler would have been unthinkable. He validated them, while they validated him.”
Of the 22 Auschwitz personnel tried in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1965, 17 received sentences.
Six received life imprisonment, while the rest were sentenced to between three and 14 years in prison for their contributions to the largest genocide in world history.