Criminal prosecution prior to the 1st Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial

Trials abroad, repression in Germany

Prior to the erection of Auschwitz I in May 1940 and until the liberation of the last Auschwitz prisoners in January 1945, about 8,200 members of the SS served in the garrison at Auschwitz and its ancillary camps. Of the approximately 6,500 survivors of this group of persons, only about 800 ever had to account for their involvement in the mass murder in court.

About 650 members of the SS had to answer to the Polish courts, including the first camp commandant of Auschwitz I, namely SS Lieutenant Colonel (Oberbannsturmführer) Rudolf Hoess. Hoess had already confessed to the mass murder through gassing during the Nuremberg Trial in 1946. In British captivity, he made a comprehensive confession. After Hoess was extradited to Poland, a Polish court sentenced him to death by hanging as a war criminal in March 1947. On April 16, 1947, he was executed at the site of his crimes, namely at Auschwitz. Another court in Poland rendered judgements against 40 former members of the SS garrison during the so-called Cracow Auschwitz Trial in December 1947. For their involvement in the genocide, twenty defendants, including the former highest-ranking officer Arthur Liebehenschel, who had been the camp commandant at Auschwitz I between November 1943 and May 1944, were sentenced to death and executed.

Historic Photo
From left to right: Rudolf Hoess, first Auschwitz commandant, executed 1947. - Hans Wilhelm Münch, SS physician at Auschwitz. He was the only defendant to be acquitted during the Cracow Auschwitz Trial. - Arthur Liebehenschel, camp commander at Auschwitz I 1943/44, executed 1948.

There were a few individual trials involving members of the SS who had been stationed at Auschwitz in both East and West Germany and in Austria until the late 1950s. However, in general postwar society in Germany barely paid any attention to the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime. The willingness to make a clean break with the past and the tendency to repress the darkest chapter in their history prevailed in government and society. The Nazi mass murders of millions of innocent people gradually fell into oblivion. This was also because the extermination sites were located within the Soviet empire and thus on "enemy territory" during the Cold War. Only towards the end of the 1950s, i.e., a considerable time after the Nazi era, did a willingness to deal with these crimes against humanity become noticeable. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the triggers for this were the Ulm "Killing Squads" (Einsatzgruppen) Trial in 1958 and the establishment of the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Clarification of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg. Another trigger came from Israel with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961/62.