Legal Ramifications and Historical Impact of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial (1963–1965)

Szymon Pietrzykowski


The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial in years 1963–1965, alternatively described as the “second Auschwitz trial,” is widely regarded to be a fundamental event which, in fact, inaugurated the so-called Vergangenheitsbewältigung [overcoming/coming to terms with the Nazi past]. In contrast to the immediate postwar period, where the necessity to judge and punish/atone, at least symbolically, certain wrongdoings committed during the twelve-years-long National Socialist regime was forced outwardly, by the Allied powers, the Frankfurt trial did occur due to enormous determination of few people, West Germany residents — to mention Hessian State Attorney Fritz Bauer; prosecutors involved in pretrial investigations as well as the central proceedings or Holocaust survivor Hermann Langbein — who were guided by rather moral than strictly juridical obligation “to put the entire Auschwitz complex on trial” (Bauer). Unfortunately, the very fact that the Frankfurt Trial was based on West German statutory law (within the general meaning given the by penal code of 1871) re-established after 1949, not recognizing the term Genocide or crimes against humanity, undermined the realization of that plan. Instead of delineating a highly detailed, horizontal picture of industrial-like extermination, judges were merely focused on examining individual cases of 22 defendants, former crew members of Auschwitz concentration camp. The trial’s legal ramifications (discussed in the article) deeply affected its public reception: while under such circumstances homicide (Mord/Totschlag) was the most strident accusation, most newspapers or TV channels competed in publishing countless blood-thrilling stories given by the witnesses and prosecutors in order to incriminate each defendant. According to certain scholars, whose publications I extensively quote (Wittman, Pendas, Arendt and others), such turn of events led to a rather invalid assumption that in its essential part Holocaust was the work of sadists, it overlooked the role of ordinary men entangled (often against their will) in the “machinery of destruction” (Hilberg). However, plentiful inaccuracies do not invalidate the overall historical significance of the Frankfurt trial (second essential part of my considerations) — more than fifty years after the final verdict was told it should be considered as a giant step in the above-mentioned Vergangenheitsbewältigung process, that prepared the way for the following ones: 1968 revolt, the emission of Holocaust TV series in 1979, the discussion over the war crimes of Wehrmacht in the mid nineties etc.

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