Journal Article

Indicting Auschwitz? The Paradox of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial

Rebecca Elizabeth Wittmann

in German History

Published on behalf of German History Society

Volume 21, issue 4, pages 505-532
Published in print October 2003 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online October 2003 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI:
Indicting Auschwitz? The Paradox of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial

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During the late 1950s, the German authorities in the public prosecutor's office of the state of Hesse in Frankfurt began to organize what would become the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963–5 of twenty people alleged to have been responsible for some of the worst crimes at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The trial opened with a seven-hundred-page indictment, an extraordinary document that included the testimony of two hundred and fifty-two witnesses (both survivors and former SS officers) and a two-hundred-page history of the camp written by experts. In the mind of its principal organizer, the trial was to put the entire ‘Auschwitz Complex’ before the court. This concept, ‘Auschwitz on trial’, is at the core of German public confrontation with the Nazi past in the 1960s.

But legal constraints, I argue, created the paradoxical situation in which the prosecution initially attempted to put Auschwitz on trial, but instead had to use some of the conventions of the Nazi regime in order to show the personal initiative of the defendants and convict them of perpetrating murder. By elucidating the origins and exigencies of the West German penal code, and by examining both the historical background section and the charges against the suspects in the 1963 indictment, I show that the decision to use the German penal code for prosecuting Nazi crimes created a paradoxical situation for the state attorney's office in Frankfurt: they had to use Nazi orders and regulations to show that the defendants had acted above and beyond the orders of the SS in Berlin.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: European History

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