… the Auschwitz Trial Began 50 Years Ago Today
On 20 December 1963, Federal Germany’s largest and longest-lasting trial to date of crimes committed in National Socialist concentration and extermination camps opened in the council chamber of Frankfurt’s Römer, the city hall. On trial were twenty-two former staff members who had worked between 1941 and 1945 at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The highest-ranking defendant and last commandant of the camp, Richard Baer, had died just before the trial began. Many others did not face charges at all, not least because almost all crimes dating from the Nazi era were already time-barred—even homicide.
Since the Federal German legislature had not anchored the Allies’ postwar trials in Federal German law, trial proceedings in Frankfurt am Main—and likewise all subsequent trials of Nazi crimes—were based on the Penal Code of 1871. Consequently the only charges made were those of murder, and of aiding and abetting murder; and the court, under the guidance of the presiding judge Hans Hofmeyer, was accordingly obliged to find whether defendants had been personally involved in acts of murder, that is to say, had broken the law.
The penal proceedings filed under the number 4 KS 2 /63, which went down in history as the Auschwitz Trial, had been planned and prepared well in advance by Fritz Bauer, Solicitor General of the State of Hesse. The trial lasted twenty months, twice as long as originally planned, and received broad media coverage. German and international media ran more reports than ever before on the systematically planned mass murder of concentration camp prisoners, as well as on those who had willingly perpetrated the crime or been involved in it in some way. They thereby turned the spotlight on the testimony given by the 211 Auschwitz survivors who took the witness stand.
On 20 December 1963 Hessischer Rundfunk devoted its Hessenschau newsreel to the first day in court: a thirteen-minute feature during which the former Auschwitz prisoner Franz Unikower formulated in an astoundingly sober way, what the survivors expected from the trial:
“[…] it was not a thirst for vengeance that motivated us when this long-prepared trial began. It is, for us, a feeling of tragic satisfaction that now, after so many years, evidence is being gathered in great detail, about who was involved in the terrible crimes committed at the Auschwitz camp, and to what extent.”
The screenings integrated in the “On Trial” chapter of our permanent exhibition includes this Hessenschau newsreel, in which the testimony of Franz Unikower can be seen, as well as the packed public gallery of the Frankfurt courtroom. It is estimated that 20,000 people attended the trial. Among them were many writers and intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Inge Deutschkron, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Henry Miller, Robert Neumann, Horst Krüger, and Peter Weiss. Their texts show how harrowing the statements of the survivors and the reactions of the accused must have been. Peter Weiss, in his “Vorübung zum dreiteiligen Drama divine commedia” [Preliminary Exercise for a Divina Commedia Drama in Three Parts], which was first published in German in Rapporte, Frankfurt/Main 1981 , p. 133 f., wrote that:
“It was then that I saw the tortured stand before their tormentors,
The last survivors facing those who had condemned them to death [...]
Nameless on both sides, mere leftovers of a thorough purge,
Only stammering, uncomprehending folk,
Up in front of a court investigating grim and deliquescent acts of cruelty [...].”
The Auschwitz Trial marks a caesura. It sparked a process that was much more important than the trial itself: the Federal Republic of Germany’s process of dealing with its Nazi past.
Monika Flores Martínez, Permanent Exhibition, and Mirjam Wenzel, Media