Franz Stangl, the son of a night-watchman, was born in Altmünster, Austria, on March 26, 1908. After working as a weaver, Stangl joined the Austrian police in 1931 and soon afterwards the then illegal Nazi Party.
After Anschluss, Stangl was quickly promoted through the ranks. In 1940, Stangl became superintendent of the T-4 Euthanasia Program at the Euthanasia Institute at Schloss Hartheim where mentally and physically handicapped people were sent to be killed.
In 1942, he was transferred to Poland where he worked under SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Odilo Globocnik. Stangl was commandant of Sobibór from March 1942 until September 1942, when he was transferred to Treblinka. Always dressed in white riding clothes, Stangl gained a reputation as an efficient administrator and was described by Odilo Globocnik as “the best camp commander, who had the greatest share of the entire action....”
At the end of the war, Stangl managed to conceal his identity and, although imprisoned in 1945, he was released two years later. He escaped to Italy with his colleague from Sobibór, Gustav Wagner, where he was helped by some officials of the Vatican to reach Syria on a Red Cross passport. Stangl was joined by his wife and family and lived in Syria for three years before moving to Brazil in 1951. With the help of friends, Stangl found work at the Volkswagen plant in Sao Paulo, still using his own name.
For years his responsibility in the mass murder of men, women and children had been known to the Austrian authorities, but Austria did not issue a warrant for Stangl's arrest until 1961. It took another six years before he was tracked down by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and arrested in Brazil.
After extradition to West Germany, he was tried for the deaths of approximately 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: "My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty ...". Found guilty on October 22, 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of heart failure in Düsseldorf prison on June 28, 1971.
Franz Stangl was interviewed by the author Gitta Sereny in 1970 and his comments later appeared in the book Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (1983):
"Would it be true to say that you got used to the liquidations?"
He thought for a moment. "To tell the truth," be then said, slowly and thoughtfully, "one did become used to it."
"In days? Weeks? Months?"
"Months. It was months before I could look one of them in the eye. I repressed it all by trying to create a special place: gardens, new barracks, new kitchens, new everything; barbers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters. There were hundreds of ways to take one's mind off it; I used them all."
"Even so, if you felt that strongly, there had to be times, perhaps at night, in the dark, when you couldn't avoid thinking about it?"
"In the end, the only way to deal with it was to drink. I took a large glass of brandy to bed with me each night and I drank."
"I think you are evading my question."
"No, I don't mean to; of course, thoughts came. But I forced them away. I made myself concentrate on work, work and again work."
"Would it be true to say that you finally felt they weren't really human beings?"
"When I was on a trip once, years later in Brazil," be said, his face deeply concentrated, and obviously reliving the experience, "my train stopped next to a slaughterhouse. The cattle in the pens hearing the noise of the train, trotted up to the fence and stared at the train. They were very close to my window, one crowding the other, looking at me through that fence. I thought then, 'Look at this, this reminds me of Poland; that's just how the people looked, trustingly, just before they went into the tins..."'
"You said tins," I interrupted. "What do you mean?" But he went on without hearing or answering me.
"... I couldn't eat tinned meat after that. Those big eyes which looked at me not knowing that in no time at all they'd all be dead." He paused. His face was drawn. At this moment he looked old and worn and real.
"So you didn't feel they were human beings?"
"Cargo," he said tonelessly. "They were cargo." He raised and dropped his hand in a gesture of despair. Both our voices had dropped. It was one of the few times in those weeks of talks that he made no effort to cloak his despair, and his hopeless grief allowed a moment of sympathy.
"When do you think you began to think of them as cargo? The way you spoke earlier, of the day when you first came to Treblinka, the horror you felt seeing the dead bodies everywhere - they weren't 'cargo' to you then, were they?"
"I think it started the day I first saw the Totenlager in Treblinka. I remember Wirth standing there, next to the pits full of blue-black corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity, it couldn't have; it was a mass - a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said, 'What shall we do with this garbage?' I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo."
"There were so many children, did they ever make you think of your children, of how you would feel in the position of those parents?"
"No," he said slowly, "I can't say I ever thought that way." He paused. "You see," he then continued, still speaking with this extreme seriousness and obviously intent on finding a new truth within himself, "I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the tube. Bu t- how can I explain it - they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips like ..." the sentence trailed off.
"Could you not have changed that?" I asked. "In your position, could you not have stopped the nakedness, the whips, the horror of the cattle pens?"
"No, no, no. This was the system. Wirth had invented it. It worked and because it worked, it was irreversible."