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Prosecuting Auschwitz

Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965

First Run Features

Directors: Rolf Bickel, Dietrich Wagner

Germany, 1993, 180 minutes

Color & b/w, in German w/English subtitles



         “I had the bad luck to get tangled up in this horror. The crimes did not occur because it was my will,” a man in a dark suit with a striped tie says, matter-of-factly. He stands up straight, wears thick plastic glasses and continues to read from his notes. “My purpose was not to kill people. Blame for mass murder belongs alone to the political leaders. I am guilty of obedience; my subordination to duty and to wartime conscription; my oath of office; and service. The high command, to which I did not belong, issued the orders. As I see it, they deserve to be punished for the atrocities committed in following the orders from above. The subordinates of these superiors are now victims. I am such a victim, and it should not be forgotten.”


         So says Adolf Eichmann in his final statements at his 1961 trial in Israel after the Mossad captured him in Argentina – the “safe haven” for Nazi officers after the war. Eichmann’s final words are just a few of the many testimonies collected in filmmakers Rolf Bickel’s and Dietrich Wagner’s “Verdict on Auschwitz”. And although it is hard to believe, Eichmann’s insistence that he is a “victim” is not even the most outrageous claim of the Nazi defendants.


         Of the 85 SS officers who testified during the Frankfurt trial, which occurred shortly after the Eichmann trial and ended in 1965, none had “seen” anything that they could remember. In his closing statement, Victor Capesius, the pharmacist who was instrumental in the Nazis’ use of the Zyklon B gas, said unabashedly, “I did not cause anyone to suffer in Auschwitz. I was polite, friendly and helpful to everyone whenever I could. I am guilty of no crimes in Auschwitz. I ask the court for an acquittal.”


         Willi Stark even got a bit philosophical in his closing statements. “Esteemed court, I participated in many people’s deaths. I was totally honest about this fact from the very beginning,” he said. “Following the war, I often asked myself if this made me a criminal, but I have failed to find a valid answer for myself. I believed in the Fuhrer. I wanted to serve my people. I deeply regret choosing an errant path, but I can’t undo what is done.”


         Robert Mulka, adjutant at Auschwitz, tried a different strategy. He completely denied knowing about the trucks carrying people to the gas chambers.


The Auschwitz Gate, as seen in “Verdict On Auschwitz,” a First Run Features Release. Over the course of 900 days – from the beginning of 1942 until November 1944 – approximately 600 special transports arrived at the death camp via the German National Railway.


         The documentary of the first Auschwitz trial is based on 430 hours of audiotapes recorded during the trial, which included testimony from 360 witnesses who came from 19 countries. Of the 360, 211 were Auschwitz survivors who were seeing their Nazi tormenters (22 defendants) for the first time in 20 years. Many of the victims came to Frankfurt to testify – a challenge in its own right, for many never wanted to see Germany again – without any idea how to get to the courtroom or even money to pay for a cab.


         Bickel and Wagner had known they wanted to create a documentary commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Auschwitz trial. While searching in the basement of the State Archive in Hesse, Frankfurt, they discovered the audiotapes. Both filmmakers have a background in German media. Bickel specialized in current affairs features for Hessian Radio, while Wagner was an editor at the daily Frankfurter Rundschau and at a Hessian public television station. The DEFA Film Library (founded in 1990) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a library devoted to German filmmaking, took on the project.


         “A basic assumption behind all the work of the DEFA Film Library is that film can be a means to stimulate an understanding of history,” says the DEFA release, which calls the questions to which “Verdict” responds, under-researched. ” ‘Verdict on Auschwitz’ addresses one of the most profound questions of justice in modern history.”


Fritz Bauer, as seen in “Verdict On Auschwitz,” a First Run Features Release. Fritz Bauer served as attorney general for the State Hesse. He helped in the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, and made the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial a reality.


         Since much of the footage with which Bickel and Wagner worked was in audio, the film juxtaposes sound footage with images of an empty courtroom. The eeriness of the empty room, which once was quite full and very much alive, evokes the shots of empty concentration camps, now ghost towns.


         Bickel and Wagner include their commentary on the Frankfurt trial. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the trial was the German judge’s trip to Auschwitz. At the time (it was during the Cold War)  there were no diplomatic relations to speak of between Poland and Germany; yet Poland allowed a German court with German judges to visit Auschwitz.


         But the real reason to see the film is to match voices and (sometimes) pictures with the characters in the trials. In his closing remarks, prosecutor Kugler underscores, once again, the horrors of the mass genocide. He also tells the German people that the Nazis robbed not only their victims, but also Germany’s youth – the next generation upon whom the sins of the parents were sure to be visited. The Nazis, Kugler continued, lacked the “imagination to fear” the outcomes of their actions.


         In later interviews, the International Auschwitz Commission’s former secretary, Hermann Langbein, accused Hans Laternser, the defense attorney who defended the SS men, of not only defending the Nazis (which is, after all, his job as attorney), but also of trying to paint their actions as right while working “quite nastily to discredit the witnesses” by insisting they recount exact times and locations for every detail of their testimonies. “There’s one thing he never understood,” Langbein said, “that… someone who has survived Auschwitz must be respected even if the testimony is false, even if they make mistakes. Naturally, some were made … there were no calendars. People did not take notes. You could only remember a date by chance if, for example, it happened on your birthday.” (Langbein, himself Prisoner #60355, testified at the trial about the conditions in the “gypsy” camp, where he was a secretary.)


        Laternser’s concluding remarks rehashed old Nuremberg arguments, but also added a degree of chutzpah. He admitted that all of his clients “found themselves face to face with a crime,” and he conceded that “every single person in a transport was to be pitied because they were unknowingly bound for certain death.”


         But his key interpretive move was a reversal of that, well worth quoting at length: “The selection on the platform in Birkenau in fact amounted to a reduction of the planned and authorized death toll. It averted total extermination. The selection of persons to be diverted to the camp was thus an act of mercy, which sabotaged the plan to liquidate all Jews of Europe. It saved those chosen from being murdered on the spot. This selection thus constitutes an obstruction of murder. You see, one can say that those who participated in selections in certain cases played the role of a savior of specific individuals by separating them from those headed for the gas chamber, and in such cases subverted Hitler’s plan.”


         The documentary is full of other testimonies, many too graphic to quote. The prosecution speculates that even if the victims had chosen not to testify, the case could have been made many times over with just the documentation, so careful were the Nazis to write detailed reports and follow-up reports. An early remark on the DVD talks of the Nazis’ “masterminded mass murder, committed with up-to-date technology.” Perhaps the DVD can counter this by using up-to-date technology for good, rather than evil.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and editor living in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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