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Wittmann, Auschwitz, book cover

Victory or Vindication: How did the Trials of Auschwitz Bring Closure to Nazi Victims?

Book Essay on: Rebecca Wittmann, Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial
(Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005), 336 pages. UCSB: KK73.5.A98W58 2005

by Lance Kosher
December 4, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Lance Kosher

I am a junior film studies major with a minor in history and am particularly interested in World War II as well as the Holocaust. I selected Wittmann's book to explore whether German victims of the Holocaust themselves gained satisfaction through legal means to gain retribution for the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Abstract (back to top)

Nearly twenty years after the Second World War, the German court system strives to bring justice to the war criminals of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Through her six chapters, Wittmann describes the entire process before, during, and after the trial with extensive detail. The trial consisted mostly of testimony as the prosecutor sought to bring the Holocaust to the focus of attention through witnesses who experienced the horrifying terrors committed. However, the means of justice were thwarted as vindication fell short to the injustices of the perpetrators due to the inadequacies of the West German legal system. Moral consideration took a back seat while the means to right wrong were never fully accomplished in the most highly publicized war trial since Nuremberg.

Essay (back to top)

The fundamental question of human justice lies in the conflict between fulfillment of society’s rational laws, and a greater, less defined moral code of judgment. Following the Nazi anti-Semitic reign of terror, the Auschwitz Trials exemplified the dilemma presented by this convoluted paradox. Rebecca Wittmann's thesis in Beyond Justice states that while these trials were originally intended to educate and punish against these egregious crimes, the resulting dispersal of justice fell short in comparison to the wrong doings of these Holocaust perpetrators. Despite the mass amounts of evidence and testimony exposing these atrocities to the public, true vindication did not succeed due to several distinct factors: the inadequacy of the West German criminal code, leniency of sentences by legal theorists and federal courts of appeals, and lack of commitment by judges to challenge protocol. Wittmann's book serves to fully elucidate her thesis to present a comprehensive view of what a complete fulfillment of justice might have accomplished.

Pretrial History and Investigations

To provide evidence to support her thesis, Wittmann divides her book into six different sections. The first two sections examine the pretrial history and investigations leading up to court trial in Frankfurt after the Nuremberg Trials. Here Wittmann calls attention to the criminal justice system itself by focusing on the 1949 prohibition on retroactive legislation. What this serves to accomplish is to invalidate all ex post facto laws, namely those that make individuals responsible for crimes they committed in the past though they were not illegal at the time. This proves to be a main factor in Wittmann's argument, as the West German court system utilized the long-standing criminal code of 1871, which contained a murder charge as well as a distinction between a perpetrator and an accomplice. Moreover, the murder law itself required the prosecution to prove the "subjective motivation and individual initiative of every perpetrator (46)." This redefined the act of murder as subjective, and generally convicted Nazi defendants of aiding and abetting due to "lack of will," since they said they were simply following orders to carry out death sentences (47). Under this standard, the West German court had a tendency to treat Nazis with criminal leniency; it is natural to conclude that Nazi crimes were not sufficiently punished or dealt with by the German judicial system. With the limitations of the German criminal code and murder clause, which required the prosecution to amass more evidence than would normally be prescribed in order to elicit the same results, the investigation was consistently delayed. This called for an enormous amount of logistics and evidence to be collected which included over thirty thousand pages of testimony, some four hundred witness interrogations, and around eight hundred investigations of suspected perpetrators (8). Furthermore, local courts, judges, and lawyers were not bothered by the slow pace of prosecuting and punishing Nazis criminals, since they worried about their own accountability, as many were former members of the Nazi party. Overall, Wittmann argues that the "limitations of the criminal code was the main barrier to effective justice" and nullified all the efforts of the Frankfurt prosecutors, resulting in a disappointing outcome (94). This also proved to hinder West Germany's ability to deal with its past or Vergangenheistsbewaltigung as it fell short in recognizing the injustices committed through the reluctance of the government, along with not adopting any of the four international criminal charges. Wittmann makes sure to include this background information in order to give the reader sufficient knowledge pertaining to the denazification process after World War II and historical foundations of the trial itself.

The Indictment and Trial

Further along the timeline, Wittmann's next two chapters go into great detail about the indictment and trial process of the Auschwitz investigation. The indictment, which opened on April 24, 1963, included a seven hundred page document with a historical overview of the SS as well as a complete history of the Auschwitz concentration camp (95). This history of Auschwitz served as the prosecution's basis to emphasize each defendant's individual guilt as required by the German criminal and penal code outlined in Wittmann's prior chapters. The indictment itself is where Wittmann articulates her argument of the paradoxical nature of the trial. Through the histories of the SS and Auschwitz, the prosecution demonstrates the sheer enormity and uniqueness of the individual crimes while also shifting the Holocaust to the center of the trial with gruesome descriptions of the torturous treatments of children and prisoners who were used and killed in medical experiments. However, the prosecution had to include specific Nazi regulations along with the cruel and unusual crimes to prove the individual's initiative. This gives the Nazi system a sense of legitimacy at the time the crimes had taken place, making many volunteer SS officers who had killed hundreds of people appear innocent, and only a few sadists to become the legal focus (141). The individual actions of the defendants overshadowed the true crime of the investigation that was the Final Solution and the death camps. Wittmann's argument on the paradox of the indictment reached its peak when a former SS judge was brought in to preside over the proceedings going beyond the realm of just the twenty-four defendants (9).

The trial commenced nearly seven months later, and Wittmann describes that the Holocaust has faded into the background as the testimony of survivors and former SS judges was used to expose the unauthorized brutality on an individual level, again to comply with the West German penal code (143). In fact, most of the survivor-witnesses were political and criminal prisoners since the Jews themselves did not encounter the SS officers on a daily basis and could not recount their actions in the courtroom. Unfortunately, the Jewish voice was mostly mute at the trial as the Holocaust eventually moved away from the frame of focus. However, the other prisoners were an essential element to the prosecution as they provided testimony about the horrible actions carried out by the defendants. No sense of privacy or depersonalization was present as the victims had to recall in detail their experiences of two decades prior, painting a picture of the camp's functioning.

Wittmann then investigates the theme of carrying out orders as she describes the testimony of the SS officers who were evaluated on their behavior within the confines of the concentration camp. Yet again the attention shifted away from the Nazi policies of brutality as they served to reinforce the individual charges against defendants who where on trial for murder (190). In fact, the trial legitimized Nazism and its crimes as they were in a sense deemed "legal" in comparison to the barbaric actions of a few sadists determined to kill by their own free will. With the parameters of the German penal system still controlling the trial, Wittmann's paradox became shockingly evident as only those with the most grotesque and severe crimes were punished, while those who operated the physical machinery of the genocide we seen as "decent" in comparison. Additionally, the laws of 1871 did not enforce punishments for genocide in the first place, compounding the court case into an even greater quagmire of futility.

Verdict and Responses

Wittmann concludes her discourse with an account of the closing arguments as well as verdict and responses to it. The judgment of the Auschwitz Trial was a complex and difficult proceeding, as it had to determine exactly each defendant's actions in the camps, his beliefs about National Socialism, and the legality of the mass murder that was committed (243). However, the verdict did not make the correlation between the Nazi program and mass murder as the judges' ruled according to the German law, convicting most of the defendants of aiding and abetting (254). This greatly disappointed many scholars as well as the prosecution who tried to bring the Holocaust back to the forefront by emphasizing its atrocities during the closing arguments. Most international newspapers saw the verdict as a way to cover the most sadistic crimes of the defendants, while German papers praised the court for imposing the most punishment they could on those who bare the most responsibility. However, this in itself is a contradiction as the judges who presided over the trial did not make all their decisions based on the laws as they announced they would do. Instead, they dismissed material when they believed they had enough evidence against a defendant, which lessened their sentence. Yet in other instances, the judges relied on references to Nazism and the Holocaust to impose higher sentences, demonstrating how the judges would "refuse to turn their backs entirely on the history and context" (244). Nonetheless, the sentences attempted to correspond with the main goal of the court by using the old German penal code to determine the guilt or innocence of each defendant with elements of each crime they were charged with. Wittmann believes that the sentences did not reflect the extraordinary circumstances, which reflects upon West Germany independently dealing with its past in a negative light. The overarching paradoxes are once again apparent in the inability of these heinous atrocities to come to moral fruition under limited judicial boundaries.

Wittmann's discourse on the extent of Nazi justice is aimed towards an audience of curious truth-seekers who want to understand the justice, or injustice dealt in the Auschwitz trial. They are tempted by Wittmann's promise of shedding light on the paradox she presents in her thesis: Is there a difference between true justice and justice fulfilled under the law? Were the trials enough to diffuse the wide lingering sense of inflamed injustice among not only the German people but those of the world? There can be no question that Wittmann fulfills her duty as a historian by answering most questions a reader might pose on this topic. As Wittmann conclusively demonstrates, the Auschwitz Trials brought the "small men" who had carried out the final solution to worldwide attention and forced the German public to confront their Nazi history, but failed to issue a complete fulfillment of justice and bring a sense of vindication to those affected by it.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • Marcuse, Harold. “Review of: Rebecca Wittmann, Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial”American Historical Review Feb. 2007 121f. 16 Oct 2008 (full text)
    Marcuse's detailed review comprehensively outlines not only Wittmann's book but also compares its stylistic elements and degree of analysis in Pendas' book The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965. He criticizes Wittmann for not using other kinds of archival information other than trial sources as well as her lack of bibliographical information and tendency of repetitiousness in comparison to Pendas' more engaging style of writing.
  • Moeller, Robert. "Book Review: Beyond Justice." Holocaust and Genocide Studies 21.1 2007 121-124. 16 Oct 2008 < http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/holocaust_and_genocide_studies/v021/2.com >.
    Moeller's review encompasses the layout of Wittmann's book all leading up to her conclusion of the trial's paradoxical outcome as it yielded little justice and limited “political enlightenment.” Moeller also questions the focus of the press in Wittmann's book as she fails to include right-wing, religious, and left-wing publications into her analysis of the role of the media during the trial.

Books and Articles

  • Pendas, Devin O. , The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965: Genocide, History, and the Limits of the Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) UCSB KK73.5.A98P46 2006.
    This book follows virtually the same pattern as Wittmann's book as it provides a history throughout the trial while also tackling the limitations of the West German Court System. This book is useful for demonstrating how the trial did not adequately grasp the deep social roots of the impact of the Nazi genocide through its accounts of the West German public after the verdict was reached.
  • Rückerl, Adalbert , The Investigation of Nazi Crimes 1945-1978: A Documentation (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Book, 1980) (amazon.com page)
    Provides a detailed and accurate account of the proceedings against Nazi criminals. Other than the Allied and German led trials at Nuremberg and Auschwitz, this book includes other foreign country cases giving a different perspective on trying Nazis.
  • Swift, Shayla . “Lost Lessons: American Media Depictions of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965. ” University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2006. (text online at UNL)
    This online article through the University of Nebraska goes further in depth on Wittmann's concluding chapters about the role of the media during and after the trial. Unlike using mostly German press reactions as Wittmann did, Swift describes the feedback of the American newspapers and how they also shifted attention away from the Holocaust to just a few violent individuals.

Web Sites

  • Jewish Virtual Library. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 2008. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/WarCrime5.html
    This website goes into depth on the statistics and figures on the sentences of the twenty-four defendants of the second Auschwitz Trial. Additionally, there is further information on the Auschwitz concentration camp itself as well as other facts and figures regarding the Holocaust.
  • Stäglich, Wilhelm Auschwitz: A Judge Looks at the Evidence. English translation by Thomas Francis,1986 by Institute for Historical Review
    Very detailed website including eyewitness accounts as well as dialogue by one of the preceding judges of the Auschwitz trials. It includes photos and official German documents used in the trial. Furthermore, the site investigates the myth of the death camps in the minds of surrounding villagers as some plead ignorance to the Nazi atrocities.

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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 12/16/08; last updated:
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