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The Auschwitz Trials: Background & Overview

(1947 - 1968)

In the Moscow Declaration of October 30, 1943, the Allied Powers agreed that Germans guilty of war crimes would be extradited to the country which had been the scene of their activities. Accordingly, Germans arrested in connection with the Auschwitz issue were handed over to Poland.

On April 2, 1947, Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of the camp, was sentenced to death in Warsaw and hung on a gallows adjacent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. This was followed by a trial in Cracow, at which 23 SS members were condemned to death. Twenty-one of the sentences were carried out, including those of Arthur Liebehenschel, Hoess' successor as commandant of the camp, Maximilian Grabner, and the camp leaders Hans Aumeier and Maria Mandel. Two of the accused, camp doctors Johann Paul Kremer and Arthur Breitwieser, had their sentences commuted to prison terms. Sixteen of the accused were given prison terms ranging from three years to life, and one Hans Munch, an official of the Hygiene Institute in Rajsko, was acquitted. At a later stage, a long series of minor trials connected with Auschwitz was held in Poland, bringing the total up to at least 617 defendants, of whom 34 were sentenced to death.

By no means did these trials bring to justice all those, or even most of those, men and women who served at Auschwitz. And the Ukrainians on the grounds were also never brought to trial. Historians at the Auschwitz State Museum estimate that the SS staff of Auschwitz numbered approximately 700 people in 1941, 2,000 in 1942, 3,000 in April 1944, and reached its peak with the evacuation in January 1945, with 4,415 SS men and 71 SS women overseers. Between 7,000 and 7,200 people served on the staff of Auschwitz at one time or another according to the card files of personnel.

SS men from Auschwitz were also tried by the tribunals of other countries; according to available information, there were 11 such trials held by British, American, Soviet, French, and Czech courts, culminating in 24 convictions, with sentences ranging from prison terms to death. At the trial for the mass murders committed at Bergen-Belsen , the sentences also took into consideration crimes committed at Auschwitz, since many of the accused had been transferred to Belsen when Auschwitz was evacuated (on January 18, 1945). There is no information available on the summary trials held by Soviet military tribunals. The trials against officials of the firms IG Farben-Werke and Krupp were in some respects also Auschwitz trials, for the indictment included crimes committed against Auschwitz prisoners whom these firms had used as forced labor. Bruno Tesch, who built the crematoria at Auschwitz, was sentenced to death in Hamburg. Gerhard Peters, general manager of Degesch Company, which had supplied the poison gas to Auschwitz, was acquitted at his Frankfurt trial. After 1951 all the laender (states of the German Federal Republic) commuted the prison terms that had earlier been passed by Allied tribunals.

Until 1960, the only trials by German and Austrian courts on record were one against seven SS men from Auschwitz, as well as those of several Auschwitz inmates who became functionaries in the camp. It was not until 1958 that German courts began a systematic inquiry into the Auschwitz issue, prompted by complaints submitted by camp survivors as well as by the investigations carried out by the newly established central office for the prosecution of Nazi criminals (Zentralstelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen – "central agency of the ministries of justice of the laender" – in Ludwigsburg). First to stand trial, in November 1960 in Muenster, was the camp doctor Kremer, who had been released from his Polish prison. He was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment, but his Polish prison term was taken into account and he did not have to serve any further sentence. The trial of Carl Clauberg, the gynecologist, who had been sentenced in Russia and later released, came to an abrupt end when the defendant died in jail.

On December 20, 1963, after 5½ years of preparation, the lengthy Auschwitz trial began in Frankfurt lasting 183 sessions and ending on August 20, 1965. Six of the accused were given maximum sentences (life imprisonment), three were acquitted, two were released because of ill health, and the rest received prison terms ranging from 3¼ to 14 years. The verdict was appealed to the Federal Supreme Court, and with one exception all appeals were rejected.

Simultaneously with the German Auschwitz trial, investigations of SS men from Auschwitz were also initiated in Austria, on the basis of complaints lodged by survivors. However, no indictment was issued. In East Germany, inquiries started at a later date. In the summer of 1965 camp doctor Horst Fischer, who until then had been permitted to carry on his practice under his own name, was arrested and, after a brief show trial, sentenced to death and executed. \

On completion of the major trial, several minor trials were held at Frankfurt: the second Auschwitz trial (with three defendants) from December 14, 1965, to September 16, 1966; and the third Auschwitz trial, which began on August 30, 1967, and ended on June 14, 1968. More trials were in the stage of preparation. Some of the guilty men of Auschwitz committed suicide after the war; others managed to escape. One of the latter was Horst Schumann who, like Clauberg, had carried out sterilization experiments at Auschwitz, and who found refuge in Ghana until November 1966, when he was extradited to Germany.

In total no more than 15% of the Auschwitz concentration camp staff ever stood before the bar of justice in any country. Yet the percentage tried because of their work at Auschwitz is significantly larger than at any other camps, perhaps owing to the emblematic nature of Auschwitz as the epicenter of the Holocaust.

The Auschwitz trials formed the subject of a play by Peter *Weiss which was performed in several countries.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Naumann, Auschwitz (Eng., 1966); H. Langbein, Der Auschwitz-Prozess: eine Documentation, 2 vols. (1965); Brand, in: Yad Vashem Bulletin, 15 (1964), 43–117. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Auschwitz 1940–1945: Central Issue in the History of the Camp, Volume v: Epilogue (2000).