, as outlined in other pages of this website, the Allies had
comprehensive knowledge of the murder of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis and their
accomplices. What was their response to be in the post-war world? There was a moral
imperative that justice be done and be seen to be done, that there be some kind
of reckoning for the countless crimes that had been committed. Initially, the parties
were unanimous in their views. The Soviet attitude was expressed in a toast proposed by
“To the quickest possible justice for all German war criminals…I
drink to the justice of the firing squad.
At the most, the criminals should be granted some kind of drumhead court martial
before being shot, but the it was considered that the guilt of
and his cohorts did not requiring proving in a court of law.
Led by the United States, this view gradually changed. Many of those who had represented
the leadership of Nazi Germany – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann
et al - were already dead or missing. Increasingly it was realised that some due
process was necessary for those who remained. Moreover, a large scale trial presented
the opportunity to begin the supposed process of re-education of the German nation,
as well as creating a permanent record for posterity. Once the decision had eventually
been taken to conduct a trial, the magnitude of the problems involved became apparent.
Where was the trial to take place? Who were to be the accused, and of what crimes?
In the absence of any competent German legal authority, who was to preside over the trial?
The answer to the last question was determined at a conference held in
in August 1945
. An International Military
Tribunal (IMT), consisting of representatives from the U.S.A., Britain, the Soviet Union,
and France, and supported by the agreement of nineteen other nations, would form the court.
A reconciliation between the different approaches of the American and British judicial
systems as compared to the French and Russian was largely achieved by the Charter
attached to the London
The choice of venue was relatively simple. The Russians had suggested that the trial be
held in Berlin
, and in fact the opening session of the Tribunal
was held there on 18 October 1945
, but Nürnberg
was seen as a more attractive option. It was situated in the American zone of
occupation, thus ensuring better accommodation, logistical support and, not least,
rations. More importantly, although damaged, the Palace of Justice in
was the only building of its size still standing
in Germany capable of offering adequate facilities. The symbolic importance of the city
as the home of the Nazi Party Rallies and the notorious
Laws" of 1935
The answer to the question of who the accused were to be was to a great extent resolved
by a combination of availability and notoriety. The British were in favour of selecting a few
obvious candidates and trying them quickly. The Americans, however, had something
much grander in mind, and it was the American impetus which was to drive the trial
forward. Ultimately, it was decided to choose individuals who were considered
representative of the various elements of the Nazi hierarchy –
for the Government and Nazi Party,
for the Foreign Office, Kaltenbrunner
for the RSHA, Funk
for the economy, Keitel
for the army, Raeder
for the navy, and so on. These were the “first rank” criminals. The charges against the
accused would be under a combination of any or all of four headings: (1) the
common plan or conspiracy; (2) crimes against peace; (3) war crimes; and (4) crimes
against humanity. Of these, by far the most difficult to prove was the first, which had
only been implied in the original Charter. Indeed, had the indictments related solely to
the other three charges, there was overwhelming evidence of guilt on behalf of most of the defendants.
The decision to indict all of the accused of participating in a conspiracy stemmed largely
from American experience of anti-trust and organized crime cases and was a view literally
quite foreign to continental law. It became the main thrust of the American prosecution
strategy on the basis that all of the other charges flowed from the alleged conspiracy.
The influence of this kind of thinking can be seen in the modern American “Racketeer
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act” (RICO), which provides for extensive
penalties for criminal acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.
Since it was agreed that all of the Nazi organizations were criminal, it appeared that guilt
on the first count would of itself confirm guilt on the other charges. How unsuccessful this
reasoning was can be seen from the verdicts of the judges at the IMT. Although all 22
defendants were indicted under the conspiracy charge, only 8 of them were found guilty
of it, a fact all the more extraordinary when compared to the total number of guilty
verdicts (44) returned in respect of all other charges levelled against the defendants (52).
Of even greater importance to the post-war perception of Nazi crimes was the manner in
which evidence was to be presented. The chief American prosecutor,
, had determined that this would be
primarily based on documents, with a minimum of witness evidence, even though there
was an abundance of the latter available. Furthermore, the Nazi extermination of the
Jews was, if anything, to be played down at the IMT and subsequent trials conducted
by the individual occupying powers. There was concern that the persecution and murder
of the Jews should not become the central issue of the trials. Although evidence
concerning the consequences of the Nazi’s extreme anti-Semitism could hardly be
avoided, there was no attempt to recognize the pre-eminent nature of the Jewish fate.
Thus the defendants in the British “Zyklon B Case”
(Bruno Tesch, Joachim Drösihn
) in March 1946
were accused “in violation of the laws and usages of war” of supplying “poison gas used
for the extermination of allied nationals interned in concentration camps.” No mention
was made in the indictment that the overwhelming majority of those murdered were Jews.
Nobody spoke for the Jews as a specific victim group, least of all the Jews themselves,
for there were to be few Jewish witnesses allowed to provide evidence at the trials.
In part this derived from a suspicion that such testimony would be over-dramatized and
unreliable, but there can also be little doubt that the inability to grasp the true nature of the
tragedy that had overwhelmed the Jewish people, an inability so evident in wartime,
still existed, as well as more than a trace of the anti-Semitism that had been so prevalent
in wartime political and diplomatic circles.
The case for the prosecution under the four counts of the IMT indictment was allocated
to the lawyers of individual nations. The Americans dealt with the conspiracy charge, the
British handled crimes against peace, and the French and Russians divided war
crimes and crimes against humanity between them. The choice of which actions were
to be used to illustrate the nature of the crimes committed were left to whichever nation
was responsible for prosecuting the area of responsibility allocated to it. Prominence
was given to what were considered “representative” illustrations of Nazi crimes.
Furthermore, since the primary thrust of the prosecution case was to accentuate the
conspiracy charge, the emphasis was on the perpetrator’s person over the perpetrated
event. In other words, the perpetrators became the focus, rather than the actions for which
they were responsible and the consequences of those actions.
Neither the French nor the Russians made adequate enquiries into the manner in
which the exterminatory policy had been managed, and showed little understanding
of the subject. Although the French produced
as a witness
to testify about conditions at
, they chose to make no mention of the
Parisian transit camp of
. Almost completely absent from the French and
Russian evidence for the prosecution was any mention of Jews. This was no accident.
In presenting their case, the Russians omitted to mention that the victims of
were primarily Jewish. A single witness was
introduced by the Soviets to provide evidence about
, Seweryna Szmaglewska
She was not Jewish. There was an underlying flaw in the presentation of evidence
before the IMT, in that the victims were not given the stage. As a consequence, few
non-German and no Jewish names, faces, or stories entered public consciousness.
Awareness of Nazi crimes was coloured by the experiences of each nation. Thus to the
Americans and the British, those concentration camps liberated by them in Western Europe,
Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen
and the like, were seen as typical. There was little conception of the distinction
between the concentration camps, primarily intended to house political opponents of the
regime, at least until near the war’s end, and the extermination camps of Poland. The
President of the Tribunal, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence
commented on the evidence of Mme Vaillant-Couturier
“The details of the witness’ evidence as to Ravensbrück
seem to be very much like, if not the same as at
He asked whether it would be possible “to deal with matters more generally, unless there (was)
some substantial difference between
.” There was an
assumption that all camps were concentration camps, and that all concentration camps were the same.
Even more important was the emphasis paid in American and British media to the notion that the
Allies’ principal war aim was the defeat of Nazism. Mention of the extermination of the Jews was
made only rarely; reports by BBC
correspondents from various captured concentration camps
in spring 1945
mentioned Jews incidentally, if at all. The
significance of Jews as being the predominant victims of the continent-wide genocide was
either ignored or simply misunderstood.
This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Shoah is best illustrated by the treatment
of evidence concerning
by the IMT. This was in part dictated by the thorough Nazi destruction of both
documentary and physical evidence concerning
, and the tiny number of survivors of these camps
compared to the significantly greater number of survivors of
, and the “normal” concentration camps.
The preference for documentary evidence rather than what were seen as untrustworthy
and possibly exaggerated eye-witness accounts also undoubtedly precluded those few
who had survived from testifying. Little was known of Aktion Reinhard
before the trial,
and the connection between it and the murder of predominately Polish Jews was not made.
Moreover, the Aktion
was perceived as primarily a matter of economic exploitation,
which the surviving documentation seemed to suggest. Importantly, this misunderstanding
was perpetuated in the subsequent trial of
as well as by the first historians to attempt a
comprehensive account of the “Final Solution.” This misrepresentation has continued to
prove fertile ground for contemporary “revisionist historians”, pursuing their own prejudiced
and distorted view of the evidence, for it enables them to insinuate that murder was only
a by-product of Aktion Reinhard, rather than its motivator.
There was also another factor involved – the tendency to discount evidence
emanating from what had become the Soviet bloc, always regarded with suspicion.
In the latter half of 1945
, a Polish war crimes report
discussing the role of the
in the annihilation of the Jews
concluded that “one of these groups, the Reinhard group famous for its crimes,
dealt with the province(s) of
Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow
, and Lviv
in the Generalgouvernement
.” Yet in the proceedings of the IMT, only two
documentary sources were used which referred to Aktion Reinhard
One was the so-called “Katzmann
Report”. The other was the
correspondence which passed between
on the winding-up of the Aktion (see
The Economics of Aktion Reinhard
). Even within these documents there were
sufficient clues as to the true nature of Aktion Reinhard. But they were simply overlooked.
The misconception concerning the real meaning of Aktion Reinhard was compounded
in the subsequent WVHA trial at Nürnberg
(Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt) had had no jurisdiction at all over
As this limited participation in the annihilation of the Jews became more apparent, it
was in the interest of the prosecution to accentuate the economic aspects of the Aktion
in order to obtain the conviction of the defendants. Members of the WVHA
involved in the spoliation were known as “Special Staff Reinhard”, and the abbreviation
“Reinh” appeared in documents pertaining to the theft. In addition, the SS could call
on the money stolen from the Jews to support their enterprises; these funds were known
as “Reinhardfunds.” This definition of Aktion Reinhard
as an economic matter
came to be widely accepted. At the later RuSHA (SS Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt
trial it was described as the “administrative task of collecting and distributing the property
confiscated from murdered and enslaved Jews". But although looting was unquestionably
an important element of the operation, it was always secondary to the objective of extermination.
It was not because of a lack of creditable expert German testimony that Aktion Reinhard
was not fully examined by the IMT. There were three important potential sources: the
evidence of Rudolf Höss
, the former commandant of
, that of SS judge Konrad Morgen
and the report of Kurt Gerstein
, head of the Technical
Disinfection Services of the SS. Höss
had been extensively interrogated by the Allies, and his cross-examination by the prosecution
was restricted to simply confirmation or retraction of statements contained in an affidavit
which he had supplied. Regarding Aktion Reinhard
’ evidence was limited to the following:
“I visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their
exterminations. The camp commandant at Treblinka
told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year. He was principally
concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the
Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I
did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination
building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B,
which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a
small opening… Another improvement we made over
Treblinka was that we built our gas chamber to accommodate
2,000 people at one time whereas at Treblinka
their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each… Still another improvement
we made over Treblinka was that at
Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be
exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavoured to
fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process.
had investigated corruption in the SS
administration of the camps, in the course of which he had interviewed
“Wirth built up an enormous deceptive manoeuvre.
He first selected Jews who would, he thought, serve as column leaders, then these
Jews brought along other Jews, who worked under them. With those smaller or
medium-sized detachments of Jews, he began to build up the extermination camps.
He extended this staff, and with them, Wirth
himself carried out the extermination. Wirth
said that he had four extermination camps, and that about 5,000 Jews were
working at the extermination of Jews and the seizure of Jewish property… Then I asked
Wirth how he killed Jews with these Jewish agents of his.
Wirth described the whole procedure that went off like a film
every time. The extermination camps were in the East of the Generalgouvernement, in
big forests or uninhabited waste lands. They were built up like a “Potemkin village”.
The people arriving there had the impression of entering a city or a township. The train
drove into what looked like a railroad station. The escorts and the train personnel then
left the area. Then the cars were opened and the Jews got out. They were surrounded
by these Jewish labour detachments, and Kriminalkommissar
Wirth or one of his representatives made a speech.
He said: 'Jews, you were brought here to be resettled, but before we organize this future
Jewish State, you must of course learn how to work. You must learn a new occupation.
You will be taught that here. Our routine here is, first, everyone must take off his clothes
so that your clothing can be disinfected and you can have a bath so that no
epidemics will be brought into the camp.'
After he had found such calming words for his victims, they started on the road to
death. Men and women were separated. At the first place, one had to give his hat;
at the next one, his coat, collar, shirt, down to his shoes and socks. These places were
set up like check-rooms, and the person was given a check at each one so that the
people believed that they would get their things back. The other Jews had to receive
the things and hurry up the new arrivals so that they would not have time to think. The
whole thing was like an assembly line. At the last stop they reached a big room, and
were told that this was the bath. When the last one was in, the doors were shut and the
gas was let into the room… When Wirth
took over the extermination of the Jews, he was already a specialist in mass
destruction of human beings. He had previously carried out the task of getting rid
of the incurably insane. On behalf of the Führer himself, whose order was
transmitted through the Chancellery of the Führer, he had, at the beginning
of the war, set up a detachment for this purpose, probably composed of a few
officials of his, I believe, the remainder being agents and spies of the criminal police.
Wirth very vividly described how he went
about carrying out this assignment. He received no aid, no instructions, but had to
do it all by himself. He was only given an old, empty institution in
Brandenburg. There he undertook his first experiments.
After much consideration and many individual experiments, he evolved his later
system, and then this system was used on a large scale to exterminate the insane…
This system which deceived the institutions and made them unknowing accomplices,
this system which enabled him with very few assistants to exterminate large numbers
of people, this system Wirth now employed
with a few alterations and improvements for the extermination of Jews. He was also
given the assignment by the Führer's Chancellery to exterminate the Jews.
At first Wirth's description seemed
completely fantastic to me, but in Lublin
I saw one of his camps. It was a camp which collected the property or part of the
property of his victims. From the quantity - there were an enormous number of
watches piled up - I had to realize that something frightful was going on here. I was
shown the valuables. I can say that I never saw so much money at one time,
especially foreign money - all kinds of coins, from all over the world. In addition, there
were a gold-smelting furnace and really prodigious bars of gold. I also saw that the
headquarters from which Wirth directed
his operations was very small and inconspicuous. He had only three or four people
working there for him. I spoke to them too. I saw and watched his couriers arrive.
They actually came from Berlin, Tiergartenstraße,
the Führer's Chancellery, and went back there. I investigated
Wirth's mail, and I found in it confirmation of all this…
I have already mentioned that Wirth was Kriminalkommissar
with the Criminal Police in Stuttgart.
He was the Kommissar who investigated capital crimes, particularly
murder. He had quite a reputation in following up clues, and before the
seizure of power he was known to the general public for unscrupulous methods
of investigation which even led to a discussion in the
Württemberg Landtag (Diet). This man
was now used in order to cover up the traces of these mass killings. It was
thought that, on the basis of his previous professional experience, this man was
unscrupulous enough to carry this out, and that was true.
Subsequent investigation has proved the accuracy of the great majority of
By the time of the IMT trial, Gerstein
died in mysterious circumstances in a French prison cell. However, before his death
he had written a comprehensive report of a visit he had made to
. The visit arose out of research into the possibilities
of using Zyklon B as the gassing agent, rather than exhaust fumes. The report was
accurate in every respect, save for those details that
could only surmise, such as his over-estimate of the
number of victims. Yet this vital document was not even brought to the attention of the
judges at the IMT trial, although both the American and the French prosecutors were
aware of it. It has been suggested that the report was dismissed as “gross exaggeration,
if not entirely the fabrication of a sick mind". If this is true, it is but one example among
many of the cynical Nazi view that few would be capable of believing the nature and
enormity of their crimes.
Although the war crimes trials created an initial impact, the public rapidly tired of them.
, who was one of those
responsible for the prosecution of the German generals and diplomats considered that by
“the British people were bored to
death with war crimes trials.
journal commented on 2 September 1948
“Public opinion would welcome the end of the business cordially.”
Even Winston Churchill
asserted in a House of Commons
debate in October 1948
that “the time has
come to stop these denazification trials
” unless they involved crimes against Allied prisoners. In
earlier that year, the secretary of the Army
was eager to see the ending of the trials because they were hampering the objective of building a
strong Germany as a bulwark against westward Soviet expansion.
With the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) responsibility for pursuing
Nazi criminals in the zones occupied by the three western allies passed in their
entirety to the jurisdiction of the courts of the Federal Republic in
. It was a burden the governments of the United States,
Great Britain and France were only too eager to pass on. Until that time the crimes
dealt with by the judicial system of the BRD had dealt mainly with relatively minor
transgressions. Moreover, courts in both the BRD and the German Democratic Republic
(DDR) had been empowered by the allies to try only those Nazi crimes that had been
committed by Germans against Germans, or against stateless persons. Thus the
great majority of Nazi crimes committed against nationals of other countries were
excluded from the jurisdiction of German courts prior to 1950
There was as little enthusiasm in the BRD in the early 1950’s
to bring Nazi criminals to justice as there had been among the allied administrations it
succeeded. This was understandable, if an abnegation of the high moral principles
previously proclaimed by the allies. Throughout Europe countries lay in ruins; people’s
lives had been shattered by war and the suffering and hardships it had brought. In the
BRD the Wirtschaftswunder
, the “Economic Miracle” was underway.
Pursuing Nazi criminals was unpopular, and not just in Germany. In the age of Cold
War and potential nuclear Armageddon there were many other worries to concern the
populace. There were comparatively few cases conducted in the courts of the BRD
over the next several years, and there was no attempt to institute a systematic and
comprehensive investigation and prosecution of all crimes committed by the Nazi regime,
particularly those against Jews, Gypsies and political opponents.
This changed in autumn 1958
with the establishment of the Zentrale Stelle der
(Central Office of the Judicial Administrations of the
for Investigation of Nazi Crimes – LZL) in
. In the first year of its existence, the LZL instituted
400 extensive investigations. By the summer of 1986
the efforts of the LZL had led to the commencement of 4,853 official criminal trials.
However, in the majority of cases convictions were not obtained. In large part this was
due to the nature of the legal principles developed by the judicial system of the BRD.
An accused could not be convicted on the basis of membership of a unit or organisation
that had taken part in a crime. To be convicted, actual participation in a criminal act had
to be proved. In cases that did result in a conviction, but in which the accused had not
acted on their own initiative and had simply followed the orders of their superiors (a
defence not admitted by the IMT or successor allied tribunals), the courts as a rule
concluded that the accused had been accessories to the crime and not actual perpetrators.
The requirement to prove the “base motive” of a killer in order that his action be declared
outright murder, even though he may have actually fired the fatal bullet, resulted in what
many consider judgements of extraordinary leniency on behalf of the courts. Indeed, it has
been commented that the majority of those convicted were given the sort of punishments
meted out to “second rate cheque forgers”.
There were important trials conducted in the BRD in the 1960’s
In particular, the “Auschwitz
Frankfurt am Main between 23 December 1963
and 19 August 1965
was the subject of international media coverage.
In contrast, the “Belzec
Trial” in München
lasted only three days, from 18-21 January 1965
an example of the relative prominence given to the two extermination centres. In
, the “Treblinka
ran from 12 October 1964 - 24 August 1965
Trial” occupied the Hagen
court between 6 September 1965 and 20 December 1966
The numbers tried in the proceedings relating to Aktion Reinhard
were modest: 10 in
, 12 in Hagen
The sole defendant in the “Belzec
, who received a sentence of four and a half
year’s imprisonment for his contribution towards that camp’s murderous activities.
Of the defendants in the “Treblinka
four were sentenced to life imprisonment, five were sentenced to between 3-12 years
imprisonment and one was acquitted. One defendant at the
Trial” committed suicide whilst in custody,
one received a sentence of life imprisonment and five others to prison terms
of between 3–8 years. The remaining five defendants were acquitted.
It is interesting that all of these major trials occurred within a relatively short period
of time. It is also arguable that the impetus for them was derived from the trial of
in Israel in
, an event described by David Ben-Gurion
as the “Nürnberg
of the Jewish people”. It had been the trial of
that had given widespread prominence to
, a prominence denied by earlier courts, although
’s actual involvement in the Aktion had been peripheral.
To date (2005
) no reliable overview exists of the criminal
proceedings involving Nazi crimes as conducted by the judiciary in the former Soviet
Occupational Zone and - as of 1949
in the former DDR. What is certain is that, as with the position in the BRD prior to the
establishment of the LZL, no systematic attempt was made to prosecute such crimes.
Still less can be determined regarding trials in the former Soviet Union and other
eastern European countries. Some trials of Ukrainians who had served in the
camps were held and some death sentences passed.
But the majority of perpetrators were never brought to trial in the courts of any nation.
Particular mention should be made of Austria, which in the post-war world carefully
nurtured the idea that it had been the first victim of German aggression and therefore
bore no responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era. Austrians represented a
disproportionately large number of Aktion Reinhard
, Franz Stangl
and Ernst Lerch
, to name only a few. Around 70 percent of
's staff were Austrians. Yet the Austrian
approach towards its Nazi past has often been characterized by terms such as
"Tabuisieren - Verdrängen - Vergessen" - that is: "making into a taboo", "suppressing",
and "forgetting". Given this background, Austria’s poor record in the matter of Nazi war
crimes trials is hardly surprising. No such trials have been held in Austria since
. Successive Austrian governments were notably reluctant to
acknowledge their country’s historical responsibilities.
Not until 1961
were Jews recognized as victims, and then only if
they had remained hidden in Austria during the war under “inhumane” circumstances.
It was only in 1969
that Jewish refugees were recognized as
victims, and only in 1991
that the Austrian federal chancellor
assumed responsibility for "the
harm which Austrian citizens had done to other human beings and peoples". He went on:
“We must also not forget that there were not a few Austrians who in the name
of (the Third Reich) brought great suffering to others, who took part in
persecutions and crimes of this Reich… (some of whom) were in prominent
positions. Our citizens cannot distance themselves even today from a moral
responsibility for these deeds.
Subsequently the parliament established the so-called “Austrian National Fund” in
order to help those victims who had been neglected by restitution and compensation
measures during the last decades.
If the approach of courts sitting in judgment materially influenced ensuing perceptions
of the Holocaust, of equal importance was its historiography. In contrast to the last three
decades, there were few meaningful books published on the Shoah
in the immediate
post-war years. Those authors who attempted to do so were reliant to a great extent on the
documentation produced before the IMT and at subsequent trials. What should have been
the primary source, the memoirs of survivors, were few in number. This was to be expected.
Most survivors had no wish to either describe in person or to recreate in print the nightmare they
had lived through, and they found a world reluctant to listen when they did. There were, of
course, exceptions. Anne Frank
’s diary and the
writings of Primo Levi
, and Elie Wiesel
became among the most significant works of 20th Century literature. But none of these
distinguished authors were typical of the great majority of victims of the Shoah
50% of whom were Yiddish speaking Polish Jews murdered in, or in close proximity, to the
towns and shtetls
in which they had lived. Perhaps a further 25% of the victims
had resided in what was at that time the Soviet Union. This is not to contrast degrees
of suffering, or indeed to make odious comparisons, for all were equal in their anguish.
Rather, it is to state the obvious - that the experience of Jews incarcerated in ghettos or
labour camps, starving, disease-ridden, forced to work in intolerable conditions, subject to
execution on a completely random basis even before a final selection, could not be likened
to the ordeal of Anne Frank
in Italy or Elie Wiesel
in Romania / Hungary, harrowing though the tribulations of these individuals were. But it was
the experiences of these atypical authors which were to shape many people’s
understanding of the Holocaust.
Nor should the influence of cinema and television in perpetuating this perception of the
be overlooked. It has been suggested that the single greatest impact
on global awareness of Nazi genocide was the television screening of the American
mini-series “Holocaust” in 1979
As with the diary of Anne Frank
, and films such
as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist”, the ability to identify with the victims was a fundamental
requirement in attracting popular interest. To the extent that these films and programmes
stimulated interest in the subject of the Holocaust they were to be commended. However,
the picture they presented was far from complete.
Central to Holocaust awareness was the focal point of
, which was to become the totemic
symbol of the Shoah
. There were several reasons for this. The
had been captured in a relatively intact
state. As has been already mentioned, there were many more survivors of the
than of the Aktion Reinhard
camps, and thus a much greater volume of eventual eye-witness testimony. Another legacy
of the IMT was the evidence of Rudolf Höss
the former commandant of Auschwitz
who based upon information that he stated was supplied by
, initially claimed an inflated figure of 2.5 million
people gassed under his stewardship, with a further 500,000 dying from starvation and
disease. This figure was exaggerated even further at various Allied trials to 4 million
and even 7 million victims. The effect these figures had on public consciousness in the
wake of the horrific images of the liberated camps of western and central Europe can be
imagined. Last, but by no means least, unlike most of the camps in eastern Poland,
was in a populous area, easily accessible by road,
rail and air by an increasingly curious international public. As a consequence of these factors,
to many Auschwitz
is not just as an essential
component of the Holocaust - it is the Holocaust. As the Israeli ambassador to Poland,
, has suggested "The focus on
Auschwitz has diverted public attention from other
" The prominence afforded to Auschwitz
to a considerable extent, been at the expense of those other camps, the importance of
which has, until recently, gone largely unrecognized. At the
death camp there is not even a public bathroom,
still less a museum. An impressive memorial was established there at the beginning of the
1960’s, but since then nothing has been done. If there is a small museum at
, it is quite inadequate for the purpose of
commemorating that camp’s probable 250,000 victims.
Most recent research places the total number of those killed at
at approximately 1,100,000, of whom
more than 90% were Jews, figures corroborated by
’ remarkably accurate subsequent estimates.
While this probably makes Auschwitz
statistically the largest
camp complex, both physically and in terms of the number of victims, the combined
fatalities of the three Aktion Reinhard
camps were significantly greater than those of
. Overall, the numbers shot by the Einsatzgruppen
, Police Battalions,
and Auxiliaries at least matched the figure for
It is unlikely to ever be able to arrive at an estimate of those who died of privation in the
ghettos and labour camps, but they clearly numbered many hundreds of thousands.
This should not be viewed as simply a matter of unsavoury statistics. Acknowledging the
relative significance of these disparate elements is fundamental to an understanding
of the Shoah
This weighted interpretation has continued to the present day. In
, quite rightly, there was global coverage by the world’s
media of the events surrounding the 60th anniversary of the liberation of
. In Britain, prominence was given in
to the similar commemoration of the liberation of
, even though that camp was of comparatively
little consequence to the Holocaust until the final days of WW2, and whose victims were
almost all the result of starvation and disease rather than premeditated execution.
Yet few countries outside of Poland acknowledged the remembrance of the liberation of
six months earlier. It was only in
, on the anniversary of the
, that a commemorative event was held for
the first time at
, a camp which has scarcely received
attention in the West. Although concentration camps such as
Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen
, and many others in
western Europe house important museums and memorials, until recently the only camps in
Poland to be home to similar meaningful institutions were
, and Majdanek
It has taken the opening of the Memorial and Museum at
in June 2004
provide the first steps in rectifying this anomaly. Even now there are no tangible plans for
similar structures at Sobibor
, and Treblinka
still less at other camps and execution sites of enormous importance. At places like the
(Airfield Camp) in
, and at Poniatowa
the buildings are in an advanced state of decay. Within a short space of time they
will disappear. Many of the places connected with Aktion Reinhard
do not even
bear a basic memorial plaque.
In his masterly and indispensable analysis of the formation of Holocaust history and memory,
suggested that the decision not to
document the murder process known as Aktion Reinhard
resulted in a certain
posthumous triumph for Nazism. He continued:
“The cynical prediction that in the absence of obvious physical evidence no one
would believe the survivors proved substantially true. There was a distinct failure at
any of the Nürnberg trials to confront the
murder of Polish Jews. Belzec, and Sobibor
barely received a mention in the proceedings of the trials, despite much anecdotal
evidence as to their existence and role.
Treblinka appeared scarcely more often, with the exception
of the eyewitness accounts provided by the Soviets at the IMT trial…The popular record
of the ‘camps’ which the trials helped to form consisted of a mixture of inflated accounts
of the better-known establishments and, in as far as
Auschwitz was described, uncertainty about the
numbers killed there or the identity of the murdered…The failure to differentiate between
Dachau and Treblinka
or between Auschwitz I and Birkenau
was a failure to distinguish murderous persecution from outright genocide, the Nazi
oppression of political opponents from the decimation of European Jewry. And while
capable historians could make the distinction, as they could cut through most of the
veil of secrecy surrounding Aktion Reinhard, it is in the vagaries of popular
perception that such potential confusions find their most fertile soil.
Much has changed in the course of the last six decades. If our knowledge of the
evolution and organization of the Shoah
is still far from complete, awareness
of the centrality of Aktion Reinhard
to the exterminatory process is certainly
more widespread than was the case in the immediate post-war years. But much
remains to be learned – and understood.
wrote that the Holocaust can either be
a warning or a precedent. He concluded:
“It should be the former, so that it may not be the latter.”
As recognition of the significance of Aktion Reinhard
within that genocidal
programme grows, it is a statement the world would do well to heed.
Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust
, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.
Bloxham, Donald. Genocide on Trial – War Crimes Trials and the Formation of
Holocaust History and Memory
, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka - The Operation Reinhard Death Camps
Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987.
Tusa Ann and Tusa John. The Nuremberg Trial
, MacmillanPublishers Limited, London,1984.
The Trial of German Major War Criminals
: Proceedings of the International Military
Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg Germany, Part 20. His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1947.
Wyman, David S. ed. The World Reacts to The Holocaust
, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996.
Bauer, Yehuda. The Significance of the Final Solution
(in Cesarani, David, ed.
The Final Solution – Origins and Implementation
), Routledge, London, 1996.
© ARC 2005