Gabriel N. Finder, Alexander V. Prusin. Justice behind the Iron Curtain: Nazis on Trial in Communist Poland. German and European Studies Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018. 400 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4426-3745-0; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4875-2268-1.
Reviewed by Łukasz Jasiński (Muzeum Miasta Gdyni, Poland)
Published on H-Poland (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)
The question of postwar trials of war criminals and collaborators has been a subject of interest of many scholars from different countries. Numerous books and articles have been published on such topics as the Nuremberg trials, the trials in the Far East, and legal purges of war criminals and collaborators. Among these publications, however, we can barely find any works devoted to trials that took place in postwar Poland.
Poland, which suffered almost six years of brutal German occupation as well as Soviet occupation of its eastern territories, became after 1945 a site of various legal proceedings aimed at punishing perpetrators and collaborators. These proceedings were conducted simultaneously with political trials of opponents of communist power. Existing literature on Polish retribution has offered only superficial analysis in the form of articles or works from the 1960s and 1970s often published by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German (since 1949 Hitlerite) War Crimes in Poland. The reviewed monograph by Gabriel N. Finder and Alexander V. Prusin is an attempt at filling this gap.
Finder and Prusin base their work on extensive research conducted in various Polish, German, Austrian, American, and Israeli archives. They complement this archival research with research in the Polish press from the late 1940s and 1950s, as well as private collections. A broad bibliography contains many publications in various languages, although as in the case of any book, there are some missing sources. The chronological frame of the book is marked by the years 1944-59, starting with such legal acts as the August Decree and initial trial proceedings and ending with the trials of General Paul Otto Geibel and Erich Koch. Such a chronological approach enables an analysis of various phases of postwar retribution in connection to a broad background of political changes during the fifteen years from consolidation of communist power through Stalinism and destalinization.
The authors divide their book into six chapters and an epilogue. Chapters are devoted to the main aspects of postwar retribution in Poland. The first four chapters cover the early trials and social demands for justice, the presence of a Polish delegation at the Nuremberg trials, the establishment of the Supreme National Tribunal, and trials of perpetrators in the district courts. The final two chapters focus on the role of the Jewish community in postwar Poland, especially historians and lawyers, but also witnesses, who contributed in a vivid way to prosecuting perpetrators of war crimes, and examine trials of the 1950s. Finder and Prusin combine these diverse plots neatly and rationally. Thanks to this clear chapter division, the reader can easily find information about various aspects of postwar retribution in Poland.
The authors lay out the general goals of the book in their introduction. Although the trials of political opponents of communists and native collaborators are beyond the scope of this publication, Finder and Prusin rightly decided to include a short description of the tangled political situation in postwar Poland. This historical introduction will be especially beneficial for readers who may be unaware of the specific Polish experience of war, double German-Soviet occupation, and gradual sovietization of Poland after 1945. What I found to be particularly important in this discussion is the inclusion of examples of members of the Polish anti-Nazi resistance, who became victims of communist repression and show trials, such as General Emil Fieldorf “Nil,” sentenced to death and executed in 1953, and Kazimierz Moczarski, a high-ranking officer of the Home Army, who was tortured in prison and spent many months in a cell with SS general Jürgen Stroop. Without mentioning political misuse of the judiciary system in Poland after 1945 by the communists, the panorama of Polish retribution would be incomplete.
The first chapter enumerates legal acts and measures imposed by the Polish government in exile and Polish communists, who after 1944 and the creation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, under the aegis of Joseph Stalin, took power in Poland. Finder and Prusin meticulously portray subsequent legal acts that were foundations for planned retribution. The Declaration of St. James’ Palace from June 12, 1941, for example, expressed the necessity of retribution for the first time. The authors correctly notice here the significant contribution of the Polish government in exile in creating this document. The main part of the first chapter focuses on the creation of legal structures devoted to prosecuting war criminals. The first, and probably most important, step was the “Decree on punishment for Nazi criminals guilty of murdering and maltreating civil population, prisoners-of-war and for traitors of Polish Nation,” also known as the August Decree. Finder and Prusin also examine the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, created in spring 1945 to conduct investigations and documentary work in places of martyrdom. The role of the commission was closely connected with research on German atrocities committed during the occupation. It was thus, to some extent, a predecessor of today’s Institute for National Remembrance in Poland.
Perhaps the most important legal structure created to conduct retribution was the Special Penalty Courts (SPCs), a new type of court that was to judge war criminals based on the August Decree. The SPCs consisted of professional judges acting together with laymen, “people judges.” Finder and Prusin paint a wide panorama of the SPCs and its functioning until its liquidation in 1947. Unfortunately, the description of the SPCs lacks a broad, comparative perspective. The construct of the “people judges” was at the time often used by the justice administration in countries that suffered German occupation. Taking this into account and comparing the SPCs with, for example, the case of Czechoslovakia would have enabled readers to gain a more complex perspective on this matter. It is a pity that the authors did not make such an effort.
A big advantage of this chapter is, however, a detailed description of two significant trials of war criminals that serve as case studies of legal proceedings before the SPCs: the Majdanek trial from November and December 1944 and the April 1947 trial of Hans Biebow, chief of the German Nazi administration in the Łódź Ghetto. Finder and Prusin not only point out the later historical value of these trials in documenting German war atrocities but also reconstruct the legal aspects of these cases. The Majdanek trial, which took place before the Nuremberg trials, was demanding for Polish prosecutors as they were forced to create its legal framework without any broad international legal sources and precedents.
In chapter 1, the authors do not limit themselves only to legal aspects of war crime trials in Poland. Thanks to their broad research in the Polish press, they also recreate social attitudes toward retribution as a whole. This chapter points out that no matter how big the political differences between communist authorities and the rest of the political parties and social groups were, the demand for a strict purge of war criminals and collaborators was at that time absolutely prevalent. After almost six years of a traumatic, brutal occupation the name “German” became a symbol of war criminal and murderer. This explains also the name of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland. In postwar Poland, traumatized by horrors of war and occupation, there was no room for creating any nuanced division between war criminals and ordinary Germans.
The second chapter turns to the Nuremberg trials and the Polish delegation of the International Military Tribunal. It deals mostly with a special document prepared by this delegation, the so-called Polish Indictment, and hearings of witnesses conducted by Polish prosecutors in Nuremberg, like, for example, the hearings of Hans Frank and General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. The role of the Polish Indictment is hard to overestimate. It was presumably the first document that provided a picture of the brutality of the German occupation and emphasized that Poland was the first victim of German aggression. This document highlighted the sufferings of Poles and Jews under German occupation. This played an important role in the Nuremberg trials. The fact that Jewish suffering was detailed in this document was significant, especially taking into account the fact that the Holocaust itself was not regarded as a separate phenomenon by the International Military Tribunal. This chapter has some setbacks. Finder and Prusin do not mention how this document was prepared or why some examples of German atrocities were included and others were not. Supposedly this absence is due to a lacuna in available archival sources, although the authors do not express this clearly. We can also find a similar sense of insufficient information in the context of Polish lawyers in Nuremberg. The intellectual background of the Polish delegation that consisted of prewar attorneys and prosecutors deserves in my opinion more attention.
The third chapter is devoted mainly to trials conducted by the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw. This special tribunal was meant to be “the Polish Nuremberg.” Based on a separate decree, it aimed to put on trial high-ranking Nazi officials and main perpetrators extradited to Poland from occupational zones in Germany. The big asset of this chapter is its detailed analysis of legal provisions that were decisive to the shape and functioning of the Supreme National Tribunal combined with a riveting description of consecutive trials. Especially the description of the trial of Amon Göth, the commandant of the KL Płaszów concentration camp, offers a picture of the prosecution of one of the most sadistic war criminals.
Another asset in chapter 3 is the authors extensive use of Polish newspapers. This enables readers to become familiar with the scale of social emotions at that time, such as trauma caused by war and occupation as well as strong anti-German resentments. In postwar Poland, the justice administration that dealt with trials of perpetrators had to cope not only with complicated investigations and legal matters but also with the social pressure of imposing only the most severe punishments possible or a will to conduct lynchings of war criminals. This chapter includes descriptions of other trials, such as the trial of former KL Auschwitz-Birkenau commandant Rudolf Höss and the trial of Auschwitz personnel. The authors provide a short but in-depth description of judges and prosecutors of this tribunal. This part of the book shows a paradox: despite the ongoing sovietization of state structures, new authorities in Warsaw decided to choose prewar attorneys and prosecutors, sometimes even members of the prewar establishment.
It is unfortunate that Finder and Prusin do not include such descriptions in the previous chapter, concerning the Polish delegation of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. In chapter 3, there is also a visible lack of any information about the situation in other countries. Such tribunals as the Supreme National Tribunal were also created in other countries of postwar Europe, for example, in France and Czechoslovakia. A brief comparison would have been useful in this chapter.
The following chapter focuses mainly on the trials of perpetrators who committed severe crimes but who were not at the top of occupational structures. For example, Finder and Prusin discuss the trials of SS general Stroop, “the henchman of the Warsaw Ghetto,” and SS officer Waldemar Macholl, former chief of the Gestapo in the Białystok District. These two proceedings took place before the district courts in Warsaw and Białystok respectively. This chapter also includes an overview of the German occupation of Poland and mentions the Soviet occupation, which gives readers insight into the tangled history of Poland during the Second World War. Unfortunately this description is extremely short, only about one page. This broader historical context should have been developed more extensively, to at least double the size. Such a solution would not have damaged the structure of this chapter but would have offered a deeper analysis of the German and Soviet occupations of Poland.
The detailed analysis and description of Stroop’s trial in chapter 4 gives some background of the Warsaw Ghetto and the history of postwar Poland. The short description of the history of the Warsaw Ghetto includes some information about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. Finder and Prusin also point out the history of Moczarski, high-ranking officer of the Home Army, who spent many months in a cell with Stroop. Moczarski memorized his conversations with Stroop and published them years later in the form of a book, Conversations with the Executioner (1981). The case of Moczarski not only serves as a description of important testimony about crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising but also emphasizes prosecutions of former Home Army officials by the communists after 1945.
Another element of chapter 4 that deserves praise is its emphasis on the role of testimonies of Jewish witnesses from different social environments, like intellectuals Bernard Mark and Ludwik Hirszfeld and former insurgent Marek Edelman. Moreover the authors rightly mention that Stroop’s trial included not only the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising but also atrocities committed during the first weeks and months of war in Poland by the paramilitary Selbstschutz formation. This chapter has some minor mistakes and drawbacks. On page 151, the Werwolf organization is misspelled. The only mentioned example of the Polish resistance helping Warsaw Ghetto insurgents is the communist People’s Army. The authors do not mention attempts of military aid for the uprising by the Home Army, which was the biggest underground army in Poland. I understand that during the Stroop trial in the wake of Stalinism in Poland only the merits of the People’s Army could be highlighted in the testimonies of witnesses; however, the Home Army’s involvement should also have been included in the text.
The fifth chapter turns to Polish-Jewish relations after 1945. This topic serves here however more like a pretext to conducting an analysis of input of Jewish experts and witnesses in sentencing war criminals. Finder and Prusin collect and reconstruct meticulous work undertaken by the Central Jewish Historical Commission and Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. They, for example, discuss Filip Friedmann and Józef Kermisz, who played a crucial role in the investigation of the former death camp Treblinka. They also provide an interesting description of the above-mentioned trial of Göth and include a detailed description of Mietek Pemper’s testimonies and role in sentencing the former KL Płaszów commandant to the death penalty. Finder and Prusin unveil a psychological aspect of these trials by describing the fear that witnesses still felt while looking at Göth. This is also an asset of this chapter.
Perhaps even more complicated was the role of Jewish academic experts, who served as expert witnesses during the trials, including first and foremost Nathan Blumenthal, who served this role in the trials of Rudolf Höss and Josef Bühler, and Arthur Eisenbach, who served in the trials of Hans Biebow and Jürgen Stroop. Their expertise played an important role in sentencing these criminals. These academics served in a complicated psychological situation. Being victims of the Nazi regime themselves and having lost their families and friends in the Holocaust, they had to remain objective scientists and support the courts with their knowledge. This chapter also illustrates the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations after 1945. It highlights antisemitism and pogroms, especially the June 1946 pogrom in Kielce. Among the Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust were witnesses and academics who undertook a mission of collecting evidence and documenting war criminals. This part of the fifth chapter, however, is somewhat superficial. It lacks deep analysis concerning the roots of postwar antisemitism, like, for example, the stereotypes of Jews as ardent supporters of communists. To some degree, this can be understandable, as this book is devoted primarily to a description of Polish retribution and not to the history of Polish-Jewish relations. Moreover, the role of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland is likewise treated superficially. Finder and Prusin neglect the role of the District Commissions, that is, the local branches of the Main Commission, which conducted a great deal of postwar investigations. The District Commission in Kraków, for example, served as a main research and documentary background and support for the Main Commission, and partly for the Supreme National Tribunal.
The final chapter examines trials from 1954 to 1959. Finder and Prusin focus on finding an answer to the question: to what extent were war crime trials political trials or an objective mechanism of imposing justice after the end of the Second World War? They mention two cases: the 1954 trial of General Paul Otto Geibel and the 1958-59 trial of Erich Koch. This chapter is not a mere description of these trials, but it contains analysis of the roles and influence of these trials on official collective remembrance of war and occupation. The case of Koch especially serves as a good example of the politicization of justice in terms of propaganda. The Koch trial was almost parallel to the Eichmann trial and was to some extent treated by authorities as a response to this trial. It also was regarded as a good pretext for propaganda criticizing West Germany and its officials for omitting a radical purge of former Nazis and war criminals from state structures. The authors rightly use as an example Heinz Reinefahrt, the “executioner of Warsaw,” who was never held liable for the atrocities he committed during the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising. Press propaganda campaigns reconstructed by the authors show the phenomenon of political use of the trials in the late 1950s as a tool for criticizing West Germany. This is the most valuable asset of this chapter.
In the epilogue Finder and Prusin conclude that despite Poland’s subjugation to sovietization, German war criminals were prosecuted in fair trials. Moreover, taking into account Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, the authors stress that trials in late 1940s Poland, such as the trials of Göth and Stroop, were in a sense prefigurative to later Holocaust trials, like the abovementioned trial of Eichmann or the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial.
Finder and Prusin took up a serious and difficult challenge: documenting and analyzing the intricacies of postwar justice in Poland and prosecuting war criminals in the context of Polish Stalinism, with mentioning the difficult Polish-Jewish relations after 1945. Apart from a few minor drawbacks, errors, and missed opportunities for deeper analysis, in general this book enables readers not only to get accustomed with a description of postwar retribution in Poland but also to grasp various political, social, and psychological factors that influenced the internal situation in Poland after 1945. All in all, Finder and Prusin have prepared a solid, well-documented, and objective book that deserves recognition and praise.
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Łukasz Jasiński. Review of Finder, Gabriel N.; Prusin, Alexander V., Justice behind the Iron Curtain: Nazis on Trial in Communist Poland.
H-Poland, H-Net Reviews.
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