Third Reich in Trial

A Gestapo torturer protected by the CIA, a Soviet Red Army soldier who ended up as a Nazi guard - These are only some of the strange and controversial Nazi court cases which have emerged over the decades.



The public knows surprisingly little about the Third Reich related trials which have taken place through the decades. The biggest reason, it seems, is the uninspiring presentation of these cases both in media and in history books. This article covers the noteworthy court cases linked to Hitler's Nazi Germany, summing up their essence in a sentence or two, plus exploring various interesting - and often debated - controversies linked to these trials.


Soviet POWs who served as SS guards to avoid starvation to death

The new millennium has seen a sort of a last drive to bring to justice the last living Nazis. These cases are typified by endless legal battles to extradite these low-level functionaries from other countries. Many people pondering these cases seem to be troubled by the following: All the persons holding a senior or noteworthy rank in the Third Reich were not youngsters to begin with in the 1940s, meaning that now, 70 years later, the only Nazis who are still alive were 20-somethings, or younger, during the war - and only at the beginning of their career. They were, to put it simply, nobodies.

From one side it is only good and proper to try to "punish all wrongdoers" regardless of time passed or magnitude of their crime. But on the other hand, is it really fair that scores of senior Nazis lived their lives in peace in the decades after the war, escaping without punishment, and the low-level soldiers are hunted down? Or that out of thousands of persons who served as guards on Nazi camps only those who have happened to live a very long life will face a trial in their twilight years. To punish low-level functioners but not their commanders seems unfair. To punish only those who have lived the longest seems random.

And there is more: What do SS guards like John Demjanjuk and Samuel Kunz have in common? They are not Germans or Austrians: They are both soldiers of the Soviet Red Army, captured by the Germans during the war, ending up in the POW camps where 3.5 million Soviet POWs died, mostly simply because of starvation. Demjanjuk and Kunz both faced a grim choice: Die... Or serve Germans as guards in Nazi camps.

Both of these men had no choice but to serve in the Red Army. And, basically, they had no real choice about serving as Nazi guards if they wanted to live. Against all the odds - from frontline battles to the POW camps - they survived by making morally difficult decisions. After the war they lived long quiet lives, during which both of them seem to have been law-abiding citizens. Is it really worth millions of dollars to extradite seniors like Kunz and Demjanjuk to face a complex trial in which the chance of receiving a sentence is unlikely since most of the victims and witnesses have long passed. Not to mention that the accused will die of old age soon anyways.

Surely there is a difference between a man born in Germany, who likes this new racist Nazi Party, and decides to join and support them and builds a career around them -- and a man born in Ukraine who knows nothing about the Nazi Party or the Third Reich, who has to join the Soviet Red Army during the war to risk his life to fight the invading Germans, and who, by a very strange twist, ends up serving Nazis only because that seems to be the only way to survive?

Alex Nagorny, yet another Soviet Red Army soldier taken POW by the Germans, testified in John Demjanjuk case that he didn't know he would be used as a camp guard when he agreed to co-operate with the Nazis, stating that when he was recruited from a POW camp, he agreed to serve to stave off hunger: "I was simply asked if I wanted to work and I was hungry. That was all."

Of course, if there is evidence that one of these Nazi guards didn't just follow orders to survive, but, in addition to his duties and orders, killed or tortured victims just because that was his nature, then all the trouble to hunt them down is indeed justified.


Nuremberg Trials 1946-1949

The most obvious and the best know court case related to the Nazis is of course the Nuremberg Trials - made famous by countless history books, historical newsreel footage, documentaries and films. For the public the Nuremberg trials - in reality a series of military tribunals - are synonymous with the sentencing of the most important living Nazi leaders, but proceedings also included twelve other groups or topics, like Nazi doctors, massacres organized by Einsatzgruppen (SS death squads responsible for mass killings of Jews, typically by shooting), and even the company IG Farben, which had close ties to the Nazi Party.

The biggest problem with the Nuremberg Trials, from the viewpoint of the common sense of justice, was the fact that in addition to the crimes against humanity - carried out on a never-before-seen industrial scale - it also included elements like "planning war of aggression" or "war crimes," which in reality are sort of "part of normal warfare", and as such frequently committed by most parties of an any given conflict. Including these "common" and "minor" (compared to industrially killing millions of people) offenses in the proceedings mudded the unique nature of the German crimes, opening the possibility to question the entire legal process, especially so because the victors were not subjected to the same scrutiny (take for example the Katyn massacre - a mass murder of captured Polish officials by the Soviet secret police NKVD).

Another factor diminishing the significance of the Trial of the Major War Criminals was the fact that most Nazi leaders who held the real power had committed suicide after the Third Reich collapsed: Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Josef Goebbels were already beyond any earthly justice system - and even Hermann Goering managed to commit suicide before his execution. Considering this, it was not surprising that three of those selected to represent the highest ranking nazis in the trial were acquitted (Hans Fritzsche, Franz von Papen, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht).

* At first the western allies were eager to carry out the military tribunals against the Nazis, but as the Cold War began to gather pace, it turned the scorned Nazi perpetrators into valuable assets who had knowledge about Communism and experience fighting it.

If you want to learn about the Nuremberg Trials and the leading Nazis from a different point of view, try reading "The Nuremberg Interviews" by Leon Goldensohn, who was an American psychiatrist monitoring Nazi defendants awaiting trial at Nuremberg in 1946. He carried out regular interviews with the top Nazis, and they offer an interesting window into the Nazi way of thinking, as the following example showcases:

"How did you figure a 6-month-old Jewish infant must be killed - was it an enemy?" Goldensohn asked Einsatzgruppe commander Otto Ohlendorf.
"In the child we see the grown-up," replied the SS lieutenant general, who was, not so surprisingly, sentented to death.


Adolf Eichmann 1960-1962

"I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction." - Adolf Eichmann in 1945.

The most famous Nazi trial about a single person is the case of Adolf Eichmann. The paper pushing bureaucrat responsible for the smooth running of the Holocaust logistic has caused countless people to ponder how most ordinary - even boring - persons can commit horrendous crimes. What makes his case so exciting to the general public is his escape to South America under the alias Ricardo Klement and his subsequent capture in Buenos Aires by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in 1960.

Although articles about Eichmann's capture and trial do not usually mention it, the very basis of the case, the legality of Eichmann's capture from another country, remains controversial. At the time Argentina even requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, protesting the "violation of the sovereign rights of the Argentine Republic," which resulted in countless talks between the two countries.

Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961 was both an international controversy and a media circus as news programs were allowed to broadcast live without many restrictions. One of the most important witnesses was an American judge named Michael Musmanno, who testified that Hermann Göring "made it very clear that Eichmann was the man to determine, in what order, in what countries, the Jews were to die."

Eichmann claimed that he was only "following orders" and that he was just a "transmitter" with very little power:

"I never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors."

In 1962 the court sentenced Eichmann to death, which was carried out by hanging. His last words were:

"Long live Germany. Long live Austria. Long live Argentina. ... I had to obey the rules of war and my flag. I am ready."

It is also worth mentioning that Israel has a general policy of not enforcing the death penalty but in this case they were ready to make an exception.

Was Eichmann protected by Western intelligence agencies?

In January 2011, a discovery from the archives of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND - the foreign intelligence agency of the Federal Republic of Germany) revealed that German and American intelligence officials knew, as early as 1952, that Adolf Eichmann was hiding under the alias of "Ricardo Klement" in Argentina, but did nothing about it, most likely to protect both German officials and pro-Nazi clergy in the Vatican who had helped him and several other Nazis to escape.


Two Auschwitz Trials and the Polish Supreme National Tribunal

Considering the fact that the name Auschwitz is almost synonymous with the Nazi atrocities, surprisingly few know about the court cases against the personnel of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex.

Poland 1947

In 1947 Poland tried 41 staff members of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in what is sometimes called the first Auschwitz Trial. Five of the accused were women, most famous of them Maria Mandel, head of the Auschwitz women's camps. 23 persons received death sentences and were hanged, while only one accused, SS physician Hans Münch, was acquitted. The rest were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

The Polish trial mentioned above was one of the seven Nazi cases handled by the Supreme National Tribunal, a war crime tribunal operating in Poland between 1946-1948. Six other cases were against notable Nazi individuals who were active in Poland during the Nazi occupation - most famous of them being Rudolf Höss, commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp. When Höss was accused of murdering three and a half million people, he replied: "No. Only two and one half million - the rest died from disease and starvation."

Frankfurt, Germany, 1963-1965

Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials - also known as the second Auschwitz trial - were a series of cases in which 22 men - both SS members and Kapos (a privileged prisoner serving as a supervisor) - were charged for their roles in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It is worth emphasizing that up to 8,000 SS members were involved in the running of the Auschwitz camp-system, so charging 22 persons was dubious at best - especially after five of the accused were freed, while just six faced a life sentence.


Klaus Barbie

"He had the eyes of a monster. He was savage. My God, he was savage! It was unimaginable. He broke my teeth, he pulled my hair back. He put a bottle in my mouth and pushed it until the lips split from the pressure." - Ennat Leger, one of the victims of the Butcher of Lyon.

Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo member known as the "Butcher of Lyon", tortured countless members of the French resistance movement - including children - during the Second World War. After the war he was, understandably, hunted down by the French authorities, but this didn't stop the 66th detachment of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) from hiring him as their agent. In 1951, American intelligence services and elements of the Roman Catholic church helped this notorious child torturer to escape to Argentina.

"I was a little girl, and wasn't afraid of him... he didn't look like the typical tall, blond SS officer we were told to beware of. He always came with his thin smile like a knife blade. Then he smashed my face. That lasted seven days." - Simone Lagrange, who was only 13 years old at the time.

In spite of the help from American intelligence services and South American dictatorships, the French authorities finally managed to track down and extradite Klaus Barbie from South America in 1983. He was put on trial - which was filmed - and sentenced to life imprisonment in France in 1987.

"After 19 days of interrogation, they put me in a cell... With the point of a boot, Barbie would turn heads [of bodies of tortured people] to look at their faces, and if he saw someone he believed to be a Jew, he would crush it with his heel." During her last interrogation, Barbie ordered Lise Lesevre to lie flat on a chair and struck her on the back with a spiked ball attached to a chain, breaking her vertebrae. "He told me, 'I admire you, but in the end everybody talks.'" But she never did, and she heard Barbie say finally, "Liquidate her. I don't want to see her anymore." Lesevre was condemned to death by a German military tribunal, but fortunately she was placed in the wrong cell and ended up being sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp instead. "It was a beast, not a man. It was terror. He took pleasure in it."

An interesting side note is that the 2007 documentary film "My Enemy's Enemy" alleges that Klaus Barbie may have helped the CIA to organize the 1967 capture and execution of Che Guevara in Bolivia.


Extermination camp trials

It was only in the 1960s that personnel of the Nazi Extermination camps faced the inevitable, as each camp was dealt in a separate trial.

Treblinka trials took place in 1964 and in 1970. The first trial examined the role of 10 members of the SS camp personnel, acquitting one of them. The 1970 trial resulted from the fact that the Treblinka camp commandant Franz Stangl - who had previously assisted in killing handicapped people during the Nazi euthanazia program Operation T4 - was expelled from Brazil.

Belzec was the first Nazi extermination camp, and of the half million Jews sent there only two are known to have survived. The lack of survivors explains why very little is known about this extermination camp, but nonetheless, seven members of the SS-Sonderkommando Belzec were charged in Munich in 1963, but only one, Josef Oberhauser, was brought to trial in 1965 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The main Sobibor trial took place in 1965 and in 1966, when twelve SS members including Karl Frenzel, commandant of Sobibor's Lager I, were charged of crimes against humanity. Six of the accused were acquitted, one of them committed suicide, and the rest were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. After the war Franz Stangl, chief commandant of Sobibor, fled to Syria and later to Brazil, but this only bought him time, as he was eventually caught, arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Contrary to popular belief, holocaust victims didn't always go down without a fight: After a successful revolt in October 1943 half of the 600 prisoners in Sobibor escaped, and within days after the uprising, the SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed.

Majdanek is a slightly different case from the ones mentioned above. First of all, it wasn't just purely an extermination camp, and secondly, a huge number of SS members were posted there, some only for a short period of time. Some personnel of the camp were prosecuted during the war, some only decades after the war. Four SS Men and two kapos (a privileged prisoner serving as a supervisor) were placed on trial and hanged in November and December 1944 - after the Red Army had liberated the area - while the Second World War was still raging. The last major prosecution of Majdanek personnel took place from 1975 to 1981 in Germany.






© Joni Nuutinen



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