Even 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the prosecution of the last Nazi war criminals is a heavily debated topic, as is exemplified by the case of John Demjanjuk. As a historian of the Holocaust, I would argue that the significance of these investigations goes far beyond bringing individuals to justice. They strengthen our knowledge and awareness of crimes against humanity. They also tell us a good deal about the authorities and countries doing the prosecuting: the choice to prosecute is political. Two separate episodes from my work with documents from such proceedings show just how intensely the Nazi past can come alive for a researcher.
Both incidents occurred in the summer of 2011. Earlier that year I had interviewed a retired police inspector who investigated Nazi crimes in West Germany in the 1960s. He painted a vivid picture of a time when most people did not want to be reminded of the Third Reich. He and his colleagues were met with hostility on all sides. In this atmosphere, it was no surprise that the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial was only held some twenty years after 1945, initiated by a determined attorney general who had only survived the war because he had fled the country.
A few months after this talk, I was suddenly confronted with an ongoing investigation whilst looking into past judicial proceedings. During a visit to an archive in Wolfenbüttel I noticed that two visitors were looking at exactly the same documents I was interested in. They seemed very focused, working in a separate room with many files piled up on their desks. Around midday, one of them came up to me and asked me to join them in the other room.
There, he introduced me to the other man, referring to me as ‘colleague’, which astonished me at first. It turned out that the two were policemen investigating former SS officer Dr. Bernhard Frank, one of the last Nazi perpetrators still alive, who had made the headlines a few months before. The archivist had told them that I was a PhD student with specialised knowledge of the SS. Therefore, they asked me if I could point out documents to them which proved Frank’s involvement in the formulation of killing orders in 1941.
I soon realised that the files the three of us were looking at did not contain this sort of information. However, I recommended them the standard work on the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS, the agency within Heinrich Himmler’s organisation that Frank had belonged to at the time. We then bid each other farewell, and I left the room, thunderstruck: I had suddenly found myself in the middle of an open investigation against a Nazi perpetrator! What was more, the case was closely related to my work!
The second episode was hidden deep within an investigation report from 1962, compiled in preparation for a trial against former Waffen-SS soldiers who were suspected of having been involved in the mass murder of Jews in Belorussia in 1941. In the file, I found a letter written by a fugitive fraudster to the criminal investigation division of the police. This source, despite its relative brevity, contained so many different layers of information that it instantly caught my attention.
First, it was written by a criminal on the run who was surprisingly more interested in accusing his brother than in keeping a low profile. The language was very graphic: the writer’s brother, an SS veteran, was referred to as a ‘mass murderer’ and ‘little Nazi pig’. He had allegedly killed Jewish men, women, children and elderly people, boasted of his deeds and proudly showed photographs of massacres while on leave. His family seemed to have shared his antisemitic sentiments. Finally, the fraudster reminded him of the fact that a Jew vouched for him after the war and saved him from being interned in a camp.
I do not know what happened to the fraudster, or whether his brother was ever questioned by German authorities. All I know is that the former SS man was never sentenced, as was Dr. Bernhard Frank. This was not uncommon: of the formerly 4,000 soldiers of the SS Cavalry Brigade (who I researched at the archive), only four were convicted of crimes against humanity. The successor of this brigade was the 8th SS Cavalry Division ‘Florian Geyer’ (to which the fraudster’s brother allegedly belonged) – only one veteran of this formation was ever sentenced.
However, the investigator who wrote the report more than fifty years ago turned out to be my 2011 interviewee, the retired police inspector! A few weeks after the archival visit, I also spoke with a former regional prosecutor who had worked closely with him on one occasion, and their cooperation led to the conviction of four former SS cavalrymen in 1964.
Working on the threshold of an era when all eyewitnesses will have passed away, these two interview experiences greatly complemented my research. They served as a basis for the interpretation of the two episodes, which demonstrate the actuality of legal proceedings against Nazi perpetrators and the complexity of court files. The combination of three different epochs – the Third Reich, the postwar period, and the present – as well as the impressions which can be gained from the last living perpetrators, survivors, and investigators, is what renders Holocaust research so unique in my opinion.
Image from Wikimedia Commons: an East German Auschwitz trial. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E0311-0010-003 / used under a CC-BY-SA licence.
Henning Pieper completed a PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2012, supervised by Professor Bob Moore. He is currently working at the Belsen Memorial and conducting further research on postwar court proceedings against former Waffen-SS soldiers. You can follow Henning on Twitter @hhpieper. His book Fegelein’s Horsemen and Genocidal Warfare. The SS Cavalry Brigade in the Soviet Union is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the series ‘The Holocaust and its Contexts’.
1. John Demjanjuk: Prosecution of a Nazi Collaborator. Encyclopedia article, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC; http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007956 (accessed on 30 January 2015).
2. See for example http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/dec/08/mark-gould-bernard-frank (accessed on 2 December 2014). Frank passed away in July 2011; see Martin Cüppers, ‘Auf dem Weg in den Holocaust. Die Brigaden des Kommandostabes Reichsführer-SS im Sommer 1941’, in Jan Erik Schulte, Peter Lieb and Bernd Wegner (eds.), Die Waffen-SS. Neue Forschungen. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2014, pp. 286-287.
3. Martin Cüppers, Wegbereiter der Shoah: die Waffen-SS, der Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS und die Judenvernichtung 1939–1945. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005.
4. Schreiben der Soko Z an die StA Braunschweig vom 5.12. 1962, in: Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv – Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel, 62 Nds. Fb. 2, Zwischenbericht zum Stand der Ermittlungen 1962, Nr. 1268, pp. 187-188.