Holocaust subjected to public scrutiny in a court of law for the first time
The first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial of 1963 1965 brought the full extent of the extermination of millions of Jews, members of minorities and political opponents during the Nazi dictatorship to the attention of the German public for the first time.
In January 1959, the Frankfurt Prosecutor-General Fritz Bauer obtained documentary evidence of the intentional killing of Auschwitz inmates by members of the SS.
Bauer, who had himself faced persecution as a Jew and Social Democrat, immediately commenced investigations. The trial began on 20 December 1963 in Frankfurt Town Hall (Römer) with 22 members of the SS in the dock. As the hearings progressed, post war Germany was forced to face up to the genocide of more than six million Jews as one witness after the other gave their harrowing evidence.
This was the first time that survivors had been able to speak out publicly about the horrors they had experienced and denounce the perpetrators. Six life sentences were handed down, but on the whole the defendants got off very lightly. Ten defendants were convicted of being accomplices to murder, and were for the most part given short prison sentences. Three defendants were acquitted because there was insufficient evidence against them.
The documents used in this trial are now to be included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. On Wednesday (16 May), Andreas Kindl, Director for Strategic Communication at the Federal Foreign Office, was in Frankfurt to present Boris Rhein, the Minister for Science and Art of Hesse, the region in whose archives the documents are held, with the certificate of inscription for the trial materials. The materials comprise a total of 454 volumes of files and 103 audio tapes.
During 183 days of hearings, the court heard testimony from 360 people, including 221 survivors of Auschwitz and other camps, and 85 members of the SS. Audio recordings were also made of expert opinions, prosecution and victims’ counsel as well as defence statements, the defendants’ final remarks and the reading of the verdicts by the presiding judge.
The fact that these documentary records are now being included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World is, in the words of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a sign of their “huge significance as part of the heritage of humanity. In post war Germany, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials played a special role in examining the country’s National Socialist past as they paved the way for the whole of society looking critically in the mirror and at the role of Germans as citizens, as active participants, as people who simply toed the line and as perpetrators. Without courageous figures such as Fritz Bauer, however, this process of dealing with the past would never have happened. The original records from the Auschwitz trials are to this day an important element in the fight against the ongoing denial and relativisation of the crimes of National Socialism.”