in: American Historical Review (Feb. 2007), 298f.
AHR requested a review of 800 words; the text below is based
on what I submitted prior to their editing.
.The 20-month trial in Frankfurt of 20 perpetrators from the Auschwitz concentration camp, which lasted from December 1963 until August 1965, was the largest and best publicized of all of West Germany's trials against Nazi perpetrators. A wealth of information has always been available about the trial, since extensive excerpts from some pretrial documents, the indictments, much daily courtroom dialog, and the judgment were published in the two-volume documentation by Auschwitz survivor Hermann Langbein (Der Auschwitz-Prozess, 1965), and the over 500 page compilation of Bernd Naumann's trial reports from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which was published in English with an introduction by Hannah Arendt in 1966 (Auschwitz: A Report on the Proceedings). However, there was no scholarly assessment until the mid-1990s publication of a collection of essays edited by Ulrich Schneider (Auschwitz: Ein Prozess, 1994) and a monograph by Gerhard Werle and Thomas Wandres (Auschwitz vor Gericht, 1995). [There were no scholarly assessments in English, in particular nothing drawing on materials becoming available under Germany's 30-year archival rule.]
This was the situation when Rebecca Wittmann began her doctoral research on the Frankfurt trial. Four main bodies of source material form the basis of four of the six chapters of Wittmann's monograph: the voluminous [128 volumes of] pretrial investigation files, the indictment [(including four commissioned historical essays published in 1965 and translated as Anatomy of the SS State , today still a standard work on the Nazi camps)], 101 audiotapes of the proceedings, and the [900-page] final judgment. These four chapters are bracketed by a background chapter on the evolving legal framework of West German perpetrator trials, and a concluding discussion of press responses to the verdicts. Beyond offering the first scholarly assessment in English, Wittmann's main contributions to scholarship are her explication of the pretrial investigation, and the descriptive analysis of the trial based on the audiotapes and press clippings. Her core argument is the "paradox" that the West German court focused narrowly on specific individual acts that were considered criminal under Nazi law, and did not place mere participation in the genocidal enterprise at Auschwitz (pouring cyanide pellets into the gas chamber, for instance) on trial. As Wittmann puts it, "The killing of millions in the gas chambers … became a lesser crime, calling for a lighter sentence, than the murder of one person carried out without orders from superiors" (6).
This phenomenon, attributable to the strong West German rejection of ex post facto law, has been explicated in most scholarly publications on trials of Nazi perpetrators since the 1960s. It had two important consequences. First, in order to obtain a conviction for murder, the courts had to show that the perpetrators were motivated by base intent, such as hatred, greed or sadism. Thus the trial focused disproportionately on acts of "excessive" zeal or brutality [however, see the nuance in point 6, below]. Second, convictions could only be obtained for specific murders of specific individuals at precise places and times. Thus witnesses were cross-examined about details of crimes they had observed nearly two decades earlier. Such psychologically burdensome treatment gave rise to many unpleasant exchanges in the courtroom. These consequences contributed to the low proportion of convictions and relatively lenient sentences resulting from this and other such trials.
[When it was completed
in 2001, this University of Toronto dissertation won the annual Fritz
Stern Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in German history; in 2005
it was awarded the Wiener Library's Fraenkel Prize for a yet-unpublished
monograph. The tremendous achievement of the dissertation was Wittmann's
sampling of the 500 hours of untranscribed audiotapes, which she forced
the Ministry of Justice to release to her (9). Indeed, Wittmann is at
her best in chapter 4, for example when she notes the changes in the presiding
judge's tone of voice as he questions defendants and witnesses (187).(but
see comparison point 4, below)
My main criticism of this book is that it so closely follows the trial sources, with little attention to other archival materials (such as the lawyers' papers) or the results of prior and ancillary scholarship. Since there is much overlap between the pretrial investigation documents, the indictment, and the judgment, there is a tendency towards repetitiousness. For example, the so-called Boger swing is described twice (90f and 120). Other scholarship is often merely listed without discussion (e.g. 289 n. 21 [how does this list show an "awakening" that began "in earnest" in 1967?]; 290 n. 4 [the first two cited works were reviewed by Wittmann for journals; there is little trace of any content knowledge of the other publications--except Rückerl--in this book]; 293 n. 22 [what does this literature have to do with the reception of the Nuremberg trials, and if denazification, why not Niethammer?], 23 [why the long aside on Globke in a note on Stunde Null?]; 294 n. 39 [this is not a very good selection on Vergangenheitsbewältigung]), and Wittmann's notes rarely name (or date) the individual documents, citing instead only the archival reference number (particularly egregious: 299 n. 16). [This makes finding the document in the DVD trial documentation more difficult, and often conceals relevant information.] Finally, a few embarrassing lapses of fact escaped the prepublication readers' attention: Adenauer spending much of the Nazi period in hiding (27); Höss having written a diary that was banned from publication (182, 309 n. 72). [Since 2001 whole collections of scholarly essays and monographs have been published in German, as well as a DVD edition of much of the source material, including 100 hours of audio and a partial transcription (Fritz Bauer Institut, ed., Der Auschwitz-Prozess, 2004). Most of these publications are not even cited in this monograph. This may in part be due to the lead time for publication–the most important works were published in 2004–, but much crucial scholarship is only perfunctorily cited in the endnotes, with no discussion of its content, such as Werner Renz's 2002 essays (288 n. 9), and even Werle and Wandres' 1995 monograph (288 n. 5, with Wandres' name misspelled).]
Such limitations would be less noticeable if another monograph without such shortcomings had not been published simultaneously: Devin Pendas' 2000 University of Chicago dissertation was published in early 2006 as The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965. I found that I learned and understood more from a cursory examination of Pendas' monograph than I had in a close reading of Wittmann's. Not only do Pendas' footnotes fully cite the documents and include the latest literature, the cited secondary works are summarized and assessed. Additionally, Pendas has a knack for engaging narrative that contrasts with Wittmann's close analyses of legal sources. [deleted by the AHR: His recounting of the letter that ultimately set the trial in motion (25-32) includes an insightful richness of detail about bureaucratic foot-dragging missing from Wittmann's version (55-58). Similarly, Pendas' rendering of the report about the dramatic arrest of former Kommandant Baer, in hiding as a forester on the Bismarck estate, right down to the soiling of pants and his wife's inadvertent admission of her true married name (48f), illustrates the highly contingent nature of the trial and skillful use of public relations by the prosecutor's office, as well as the banality of some Nazi perpetrators.] Pendas also draws on material from the East and West German national archives, the Frankfurt city archive, the institutional archive of the Institute for Contemporary History, and the Federal Press Office, which enables him to give a much more comprehensive account of the proceedings and their actors than Wittmann. [Note esp. Pendas' accounts of the court's visit to Auschwitz in December 1964, and the exhibition in the Paulskirche, neither of which figure in Wittmann's account.] Surprisingly, neither account offers any biographical details about the defendants, although these were ably summarized by Naumann (1965 ed., 17-37). Still, Wittmann's concise narrative contains most essential details, and she discusses some important documents that Pendas omits, such as Seraphim's expert opinion on the superior orders defense (79ff).
[Additional points of comparison:
I left these points out of the submitted review because of lack of space.]
In sum, while Wittmann's portrayal may better serve an audience seeking a basic information and interpretation, specialists will appreciate Pendas' more comprehensive research and more informative citations.
Links on Wittmann, Pendas, and the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial (back to top)