Wittmann, Beyond Justice, cover

Rebecca Wittmann,
Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005), 325 pages. UCSB: KK73.5.A98W58 2005.

book essay by Lindsay Asher
March 15, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Lindsey Asher (back to top)

I am a senior History major and English minor taking a course on German history post 1945. I have studied European history in many of my courses, but never covered German history after the fall of Nazism and the end of World War II. I am excited about this yearís upcoming World Cup being held in Germany, and I figured this quarter would be the perfect time to familiarize myself with modern Germany.


In her book, Rebecca Wittmann extensively covers the 1964 Auschwitz trial. She traces the process by which the trial comes into fruition and its end result after the verdicts. The Auschwitz trial itself is significant because it happened long after the Holocaust. It shows a shift in German attitude from wanting to push the countryís Nazi past out of memory, to coming to grips with the atrocities of the Nazi regime and punishing those responsible.

Essay (back to top)

Justice against Nazism

Auschwitz gateWith the fall of the Nazi regime and the occupation of Germany by France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, a new government had to be established. One of the most difficult tasks for the occupying powers was to figure out how to punish former Nazi party members who committed criminal acts during the partyís time in power and by what means they should be tried (international trial or locally held by German judges).

Prior to reading Rebecca Wittmanís book Beyond Justice, which deals with the above mentioned issue, a few questions came to mind, many of which Wittman thoroughly answered. Were former Nazis allowed to "disappear" by either assimilating into German society, or did they go into exile fearing legal ramifications for their actions? How were their crimes against humanity handled during Germanyís time of occupation and after? How and by what means were they able to orchestrate trying people who committed crimes? How did they track down these criminals?

Public reaction to the trial is of great significance. Public reaction contributes to the significance the Auschwitz trial has on German history. Newspaper publications played a huge role in bringing the trial to the public, but it can be argued that their skewed view, which primarily focused on the atrocities of the Holocaust and not on the trial itself, contributed to the German publicís collective guilt resting on the shoulders of the defendants on trial. Essentially, the trial made Germans aware of the broad scope of horrific atrocities which occurred during the Nazi reign, but in effect, this awareness did not lead to the publicís acceptance of responsibility for the Holocaust tragedies.

Beyond Justice: The Making of the Auschwitz Trial

The main focus of Beyond Justice is the timeline of the Auschwitz trial. Wittman uses this trial as a basis to give the history of how the German judiciary formed and how it differed from judicial decisions made by occupying nations. The book is divided into six chapters, the first starting with pretrial history and the last ending with the response to the verdict. One of the earliest Nazi trials was the Nuremberg trial of 1945. The main goal of the occupying allies was to seek justice. The trial was seen as a "victorís justice" in the sense that the victorious Allies were the ones who conducted the trials, and thus came off as impartial (22). Since they had the power to do what they wanted, people thought the victors were biased. The International Military Tribunal (IMT) listed three things as of utmost importance in the trial: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (20). The IMT stipulations just mentioned were important inconsideration to the independently formed German judicial system that took its time to form in 1945-1950.

Germany had to decide how it wanted to deal with its Nazi past. Should former Nazis be allowed to assimilate into society or be held accountable for their actions? Chancellor Adenauer wanted to "Integrate rather than alienate ex-Nazis, because as many saw it, "one could have either democracy or justice but in the early days, certainly not both" (26). Opponents to Adenauerís idea of integration wanted to incorporate the Nazi past into Germanyís democratic future. The West German judicial system decided to try Nazi criminals under the German penal code (28). Up until 1955, court guidelines were being created, one in particular, the Transition Agreement which stipulated that German courts could not investigate or try anyone who had already been investigated by the occupying powers (28).

Under the West German judicial system, it had to be decided what constitutes a punishable crime. It had to be determined if a Nazi committed the crime of murder with the intention of killing or committed the crime due to command, as an example states "a person is not guilty of murder because he pulled the trigger and killed another person, but because he pulled the trigger with the intention of killing the other person and succeeded in doing so" (37). Titling crimes as manslaughter or murder was difficult because determining the mental state of those on trial at the time the crime was committed was questionable. Debates formed over the statutes of limitations. Eventually it was ruled that 1925-1949 would not be included in calculating the twenty year and thus Nazi murders could be tried until 1969.

Following the IMT Nuremberg trial, the German public had little interest in the prosecution of former Nazis. Political focus had shifted to rebuilding the nation and establishing a democratic government. It was thought that actively pursuing former Nazis would work against the formation of a democracy. The public didnít ardently oppose politiciansí ideas of allowing former Nazis to assimilate into society.

Creating a body of law in which to conduct trials was only the first step leading up to the Auschwitz trial. Next was the pretrial investigation. It took years to shuffle through thousands of documents listing crimes and witness testimonial accounts. Witnesses themselves had to be investigated to determine the legitimacy of their accusations. Not all testimonies were accepted; falsifications slowed down the pretrial investigations. The trial was moved to Frankfurt where specific evidence was gathered for the Auschwitz trial.

Many former Nazis blended back into German society. The pretrial investigation period was not used for tracking down former Nazis. Rather survivors came forward to authorities telling them that they had seen these former Nazis around town. Letters were published in newspapers around the world asking witnesses to come forward and provide testimony. Survivors in France, Canada, Argentina, and other countries wrote in offering themselves as witnesses (68). Concentration camp survivors came forth with details regarding Nazi record keeping and falsifications within those records. The Nazi regime was rigorous in record keeping and prisoner numbers. All prisoner deaths had to be recorded. These Nazi records came back to haunt them in trial.

The Trial

Following the pretrial investigation is the process of indictment. The trial opened in Frankfurt on December 17, 1963. The indictment is a 700 page document containing two parts: "first, a historical overview of the SS, the concentration camp system, and Auschwitz itself; the second, the charges against the defendants" (96). Twenty-four defendants were put on trial.

December 20, 1963 saw the start of the trial. The court was composed of three judges and six jurors. The Holocaust as an event was not the focus of the trial but rather the actions of individuals. Prosecuting attorney Fritz Bauer tried to put the whole Auschwitz concentration camp on trial, but was constrained by the statute of limitations. Witness testimony was used to determine the truth of atrocities. The defendants on trial tried to portray themselves as mere puppets following orders sent down the Nazi hierarchy.

Press coverage of the trial spread all over the west. Coverage allowed the public to know what the atmosphere was like inside the court. Most of the coverage focused on the brutal and sadist actions described in court (176). Newspapers stuck to that facet of the trial because graphic headlines grabbed the attention of readers and sold more papers. The publicís attention was taken away from the trial and engrossed with the sadistic and horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. On several occasions, articles about irrelevant testimony were published due to the sheer gore factor it offered its readers.

The court reached its verdict on August 19-20, 1965. The judges estimated the number of murders committed by each defendant (209). The judgment in the files of the Auschwitz case "is more than nine hundred pages long. It includes specific reasoning and evidence for the verdict issued in the case of each defendant" (215). In figuring out the length of each sentence of the defendants, the court had to examine each individual case of aiding and abetting; "it then decided that none of the defendants had acted in such a manner as would incur a punishment of more than fifteen years" (223). The reasoning for this is that the defendants, prior to the Nazi regime, lived their lives without being law breakers. After the fall of the Nazi regime, they resumed this standard of citizenry.

How the public reacted to the verdict

Like previous post-World War II trials such as the Nuremberg trials and Adolf Eichmannís trial in Jerusalem, the Auschwitz trial made Germany face its Nazi past. Wittmann feels that the Auschwitz trial is Germanyís first major attempt to confront the countryís past, but the way the media portrayed the events of the trial to the public, separated the public from their contribution to the Nazi past. Since they did not participate in the sadistic acts like the defendants at the Auschwitz trial, they were not responsible for the crimes. Many in Germany felt as if they had been brainwashed, and were thus victims of the Nazi regime.

It is hard to truly gauge how the German public felt about the verdict because there is no accurate survey that reflects public sentiment. Hannah Arendt, a reporter from the Eichmann trials who documented his evil in a book felt that the Auschwitz trial had no impact "on the climate of public opinion" (247). Others felt that the men on trial were scapegoats for the masterminds of the genocide who were now integrated into society or dead. Some felt that the trial did what it was supposed to do and brought the Nazi crimes to Germanyís attention. Bauer was unhappy with the courtís decision to reduce many of the verdicts from murder to aiding and abetting murder. Bauer and the rest of the prosecutors had "three strikes against them: the law itself was much too restrictive, legal theorists (and the federal court of appeals) had set standards that favored mild sentences for most Nazi defendants, and the judge chose not to challenge precedent" (273).

What do we get from the Trial? Wittmann feels that the trial is central to German post-war reckoning with the past (273). It could be drawn from the verdicts that only those who went above and beyond orders given from the top of Nazi command were found guilty of murder. Wittmann concludes by saying "Justice Ė equity, the quality of being morally just, rectitude, the vindication of right through judgment in a court of law, and punishment Ė is more a pursuit than a result in trials against Holocaust perpetrators" (274).

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

References and other books of interest:

  • Adalbert Rückerl, The Investigation of Nazi Crimes 1945-1978 (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Book, 1980), 145 pages. UCSB: KK73.R8313.
    A documentation of Nazi crimes. Includes information about Allied and Foreign courts.
  • Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Books, New Ed edition, January 1994), 312 pages.
    Arendt worked as a reporter during Eichmannís trial and published articles about Eichmann and the evil behind the man. After the trial, she compiled her articles into this book.
  • Harvard University Press : (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/WITBEY.html)
    Publisherís summary about Beyond Justice.
  • Jewish Virtual Library: (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/autoc.html)
    Contains a lot of information on the Auschwitz trial as well as historical information on the concentration camp.
  • Arnold Beichman, "Germany Putting Its Grisly Nazi Past On Trial" (The Washington Times, July 3, 2005) [newsbank.com]

Additional Bibliography and Links (back to top) Added by H. Marcuse, June 2006

  • Rebecca Wittmann links
    • Univ. Toronto/Mississauga faculty profile
    • Witmann's book was reviewed by Caroline Sharples (University of Southhampton), H-German, Feb. 10, 2006. Also in that review: the DVD publication of the Auschwitz trial transcripts (in German), by the Fritz-Bauer-Institut [not archived along with other H-German reviews]
    • Her 2001 dissertation: Holocaust on trial? The Frankfurt Auschwitz trial 1963-1965 in Historical Perspective (338 pages) was the winner of the annual Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize for the best doctoral dissertations in German history, German-American relations, or the History of Germans in North America, completed each academic year since 1998-99, administered by the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C.
    • 2005 winner of the Ernst Fraenkel Prize of the Wiener Library, category A (scroll to bottom for list of winners)

Bibliography of books about the Auschwitz Trial in English & German, in rough chronological order

  1. Langbein, Hermann (ed.), Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Eine Dokumentation (Frankfurt a. M.: Europa¨ische Verlagsanstalt, 1965), 2 vols. republished: (Frankfurt am Main: Neue Kritik, 1995)
  2. Schmelzer, Janis, for the Arbeitsgruppe der ehemaligen Häftlinge des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz beim Komitee der Antifaschistischen Widerstandskämpfer in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (ed.), IG-Farben, Auschwitz, Massenmord : über die Blutschuld der IG-Farben (East Berlin: The Arbeitsgruppe, 1964), NRLF. English:
    IG-Farben, Auschwitz, mass murder: on the guilt of IG-Farben from the documents on the Auschwitz Trial (1964), 63 pages.
  3. Kaul, Friedrich Karl. Auschwitz-Prozess, Frankfurt am Main. Schlussvortrag und Erwiderung im Strafverfahren gegen Mulka u.a. vor dem Schwurgericht beim Landgericht Frankfurt a.M. (Berlin: Komitee der Antifaschistischen Widerstandkämpfer in der DDR, Arbeitgruppe der Ehemaligen Häftlinge des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz; Nationalrat der Nationalen Front des Demokratischen Deutschland 1965). English:
    Summing up and reply of Friedrich Karl Kaul, legal representative of the co-plaintiffs resident in the German Democratic Republic in the criminal proceedings against Mulka and others before the criminal court at the Provincial Court in Frankfurt-on-Main. (Dresden: Verlag Zeit im Bild, 1965)
  4. The Hoover Library at Stanford has a pamphlet collection from the trial.
  5. Naumann, Bernd, Auschwitz : Bericht über die Strafasache gegen Mulka und andere vor dem Schwurgericht Frankfurt (Frankfurt am Main : Athenäum Verlag, 1965), translated:
    Naumann, Bernd, Dr. phil. habil., Auschwitz; a report on the proceedings against Robert Karl Ludwig Mulka and others before the court at Frankfurt. Translated by Jean Steinberg. With an introd. by Hannah Arendt. (New York, Praeger, 1966)
  6. Laternser, Hans, Die andere Seite im Auschwitz-Prozess 1963/65. Reden eines Verteidigers. (Stuttgart : Seewald, 1966), UCLA SRLF UCD
    HL was one of the lawyers for the defense.
  7. Bonhoeffer, Emmi, Auschwitz trials; letters from an eyewitness. Translated by Ursula Stechow (Richmond : John Knox Press, 1967). UCSB: D805 G3 B613. original:
    Zeugen im Auschwitz-Prozess : Begegnungen und Gedanken (Wuppertal-Barmen : J. Kiefel, 1965.) UCSD SRLF NRLF UCSB
  8. Hirsch, Rudolf (1907-), Zeuge in Ost und West : aus dem Gerichtsalltag (Rudolfstadt : Greifenverlag, 1965), SRLF. republished: Um die Endlösung : Prozessberichte (Berlin : Dietz, 2001), UCB UCSC
  9. Werle, Gerhard and Thomas Wandres, Auschwitz vor Gericht : Völkermord und bundesdeutsche Strafjustiz: mit einer Dokumentation des Auschwitz-Urteils (München : Verlag C.H. Beck, 1995), Series Beck'sche Reihe, 1099) UCSB
    republished: Auschwitz vor Gericht: das Urteil gegen Dr. Victor Capesius (Göppingen : Jüdisches Museum Göppingen, 1997), UCB UCSD UCLA.
  10. Ulrich Schneider (ed.), Auschwitz- ein Prozess : Geschichte-Fragen-Wirkungen / mit beitra¨gen von Oskar Ansull ... [et al.] (Cologne: PapyRossa Verlag, 1994), SRLF
  11. Irmtrud Wojak/Fritz Bauer Institut (ed.), "Gerichtstag halten über uns selbst--" : Geschichte und Wirkung des ersten Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozesses (Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2001), Series Jahrbuch 2001 zur Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust
  12. Taler, Conrad, 1927-, Asche auf vereisten Wegen : eine Chronik des Grauens : Berichte vom Auschwitz-Prozess, mit einem Beitrag von Werner Renz (Cologne: PapyRossa, 2003), SRLF UCB
  13. Kingreen, Monica, Der Auschwitz-Prozess 1963-1965 : Geschichte, Bedeutung und Wirkung : Materialien für die pädagogische Arbeit mit CD: Auschwitz-Überlebende sagen aus (Frankfurt am Main : Fritz Bauer Institut, 2004), UCSD UCB
  14. Wojak, Irmtrud, Auschwitz-Prozess 4 Ks 2/63 Frankfurt am Main (Köln: Snoeck, 2004)
  15. Fritz Bauer Institut (ed.), Der Auschwitz-Prozess: Tonbandmitschnitte, Protokolle, Dokumente (Berlin : Directmedia Publishing, 2004) [electronic resource: DVD]
  16. Werner Renz:
    • "40 Jahre Auschwitz-Prozess: Ein unerwünschtes Verfahren," partial publication in the Frankfurter Rundschau, 19 Dec. 2001 (full text on F-B-I website)
    • At the bottom of that page are links to three other essays by Renz, 2000, 2002, 2002
  17. Friedrich-Martin Balzer, Werner Renz (eds.), Das Urteil im Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess (1963-1965): erste selbständige Veröffentlichung (Bonn : Pahl-Rugenstein, 2004)
  18. Pendas, Devin O. (Devin Owen), The Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, 1963-1965 : genocide, history, and the limits of the law (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2006). KK73.5.A98 P46 2006 [August 2000 Univ. of Chicago dissertation, 409 pages in 2 vols.]

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/28/06; last updated: 6/25/06
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