Devin O. Pendas. The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965: Genocide, History, and the Limits of the Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 340 S. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-84406-2.
Reviewed by Alan E. Steinweis (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published on H-German (December, 2006)
The Frankfurt Auschwitz trial is the most famous of the thousands of prosecutions for Nazi crimes mounted by West and East Germany in the decades after 1945. Several recent publications, including the excellent book under review, testify to the trial's historical significance. The trial is often considered to have been a watershed event in the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in West Germany during the 1960s. In a proceeding that was widely publicized and closely followed by many Germans, twenty defendants, representing various levels of the administrative hierarchy in place at Auschwitz, were prosecuted for murder and other atrocities. In the end, all but three of the defendants were convicted of either murder or being an accessory to murder and were given prison sentences ranging from just over three years to life. Many observers inside and outside of Germany criticized the sentences as too lenient.
In his book, Devin O. Pendas meticulously examines every phase of the trial. He provides an in-depth account of the complex, lengthy legal and political machinations that preceded the trial, moves on to an exhaustive analysis of the actual courtroom proceedings and concludes with an assessment of German public reactions. The extremely detailed narrative will certainly satisfy readers who prefer encyclopedic rigor, although others might consider the book's reconstruction of the procedural maneuvers during the trial to be denser than necessary, despite the author's formidable lucidity. The impressive archival research on which the book is based is well reflected in its extensive citations, which Cambridge University Press admirably continues to print at the bottom of the page.
In his introduction, Pendas identifies the historical contexts in which he intends to analyze the trial. These include the legal context, for which Pendas considers not only juridical issues, but also representational ones--such as the manner in which the trial communicated historical understanding about Auschwitz to a broader public. Also important are contexts created by the international relations of the Cold War period and the related inter-German competition for legitimacy. Finally, Pendas examines the context of the politics of the past within West Germany during the crucial decade of the 1960s, when the relative silence about Nazism that had predominated during the 1950s began to lift. One of the truly impressive achievements of this book lies in the success with which it shifts back and forth between the details of the trial and one or more of these broader contexts.
With respect to the legal context, Pendas emphasizes the inherent tension between the legal and the historical aspects of the trial. Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, in which the Allies employed innovative principles tailor-made for prosecuting Nazi crimes, the Auschwitz Trial was conducted on the basis of established German criminal law. In this regard, the Auschwitz Trial continued a long-standing West German practice that had originated during the Allied occupation. The "limits of the law" mentioned in the book's subtitle refer to the inadequacy of ordinary criminal law (which highlights the acts and motivations of individual persons) when it came to capturing the magnitude and systematic nature of the criminality of Auschwitz. Demonstrating individual guilt under German statute was not the same as conveying the essence of state-sanctioned genocide, and Pendas argues persuasively that the trial was far more successful in accomplishing the former than the latter.
The Cold War rivalry between the two Germanies provided for one especially fascinating wrinkle of the trial. Pendas rightly devotes a good deal of attention to the role of Friedrich Karl Kaul, an East German expert on Nazi crimes. By claiming to represent survivors of Auschwitz living in the German Democratic Republic, Kaul managed to have himself recognized by the court as a civil counsel. This status gave him the right to participate in the trial proceedings, including in the interrogation of defendants. Acting, in effect, as the East German Politburo's representative in the courtroom, Kaul attempted to shift attention to the complicity of capitalism--as most notably embodied by I. G. Farben--in the crimes of Auschwitz. While this contention, in its broadest sense, was not without some historical merit, the argument certainly did not help the prosecution's case against the defendants on the stand, and the overblown manner in which Kaul and his historical expert presented the case made clear that their highest priority was propaganda against West Germany, rather than a just verdict in this particular case.
According to Pendas, Kaul's attempt to place an East German ideological spin on the case was not the only instance in which historical interpretation was skewed at the trial. Pendas devotes a brief section to the expert reports submitted to the court by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte. Although he does not ascribe to Hans Buchheim, Helmut Krausnick and Martin Broszat the same kind of overt ideological motivation as he does to Kaul, Pendas does contend that the reports and testimony of these historians were historically misleading. Buchheim's institutional history of the SS, for example, overstated the institutional autonomy of that organization to the point of letting the German state and German society off the hook. For its part, Krausnick's report emphasized the universal nature of antisemitism and in doing so, Pendas argues, absolved the Germans of any specific responsibility for it. Readers familiar with Nicolas Berg's recent, controversial book might recognize some parallels to Pendas's assertions, but it should be emphasized that Pendas, unlike Berg, attributes the alleged deficiencies of the expert reports mainly to constraints imposed by the legal framework of the trial, not to the personal experiences or motives of the scholars.
The argument that will probably be of greatest interest to most historians of modern Germany concerns West German public responses to the trial. Pendas concedes that the trial indeed helped to raise consciousness about Nazi crimes in a society that had done much to repress them from the collective memory. Nonetheless, he concludes, the trial conveyed a grossly distorted understanding of Nazi crimes to the German public. It was not only that the legal framework of the trial was not conducive to achieving a proper appreciation of systematic, state-sanctioned genocide. The German press further distorted the meaning of Auschwitz through sensationalistic reporting in which it focused on individual acts of sadism. This emphasis corresponded nicely with the preconceptions of Germans who refused to admit any collective responsibility for the crimes of Nazism. They acknowledged the criminal nature of Auschwitz, but continued to regard it as the creation of Adolf Hitler, the SS and a few sadists. Pendas expresses reluctance to employ the word "failure" to describe the trial, but his verdict is nonetheless a damning one.
Pendas's sobering assessment might well hold true when considering the trial's immediate impact in the early to mid-1960's. But perhaps we would arrive at a more balanced judgment were the trial to be situated in the longer context of (West) Germany's process of coming to term with the crimes of Nazism. It was not very long after the end of the Auschwitz Trial that the New Left and the student movement began to promote aggressively the notion that Nazism and its atrocities had indeed been systemically rooted in German society. To be sure, New Left theories of fascism suffered from their own kind of historical reductionism, but at least they tried to move beyond questions of individual culpability. After the struggles over historical interpretation during the 1980s and the efflorescence of Holocaust consciousness since the early 1990s, few responsible Germans would today contend that Auschwitz was reducible to the acts of a few hard-core Nazis and sadistic perverts. Seen in this light, the Auschwitz Trial might well be regarded as a flawed, but necessary step in a lengthy learning process.
. Notable works include Rebecca E. Wittmann, Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Marc von Miquel, Ahnden oder amnestieren? Westdeutsche Justiz und Vergangenheitspolitik in den sechziger Jahren (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2004); and Friedrich-Martin Balzer and Werner Renz, eds., Das Urteil im Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess, 1963-1965 (Bonn: Pahl-Rugenstein, 2004).
. Nicolas Berg, Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker. Erforschung und Erinnerung (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2003).
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Alan E. Steinweis. Review of Pendas, Devin O., The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965: Genocide, History, and the Limits of the Law.
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