The 1st Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial

The genocide before the court

The first Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt began at the Römer, Frankfurt’s City Hall, on December 20, 1963 – initiated not by systematic investigations but by the report filed by a private person with the police against one of the later defendants, namely SS Senior Platoon Leader (Oberscharführer) Wilhelm Boger, in the spring of 1958.

For jurisdictional reasons, the Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office first conducted the investigations, but as of December in the same year, the Central Office in Ludwigsburg also began its own investigation. In January of 1959, Fritz Bauer, the chief public prosecutor in Frankfurt, received authentic documents documenting the targeted killings of Auschwitz prisoners by members of the SS. He immediately launched an investigation. Bauer, who himself had been persecuted by the Nazi regime as a Jew and a Social Democrat, requested that the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) in Karlsruhe transfer legal jurisdiction with respect to all of the crimes committed at Auschwitz to the Frankfurt Regional Court in the spring of 1959. During the course of bundling these proceedings, Fritz Bauer hired a highly motivated and dedicated group of public prosecutors who had not been implicated in Nazi crimes and who were led by Hans Grossmann: Georg Friedrich Vogel, Joachim Kuegler, and Gerhard Wiese.

Judges and public prosecutors. 1st row: Presiding Judge Hans Karl Hofmeyer - Examining Magistrate Heinz Düx. 2nd row: Assistant Judge Walter Hotz - Public prosecutor Hans Joachim Kügler - Public prosecutor Hanns Großmann. 3rd row: Public prosecutor Gerhard Wiese - Public prosecutor Georg Vogel

They carried the investigative work forward. Supported by Hermann Langbein, a former Auschwitz prisoner and co-founder of the International Auschwitz Committee, the Frankfurt public prosecutors quickly compiled the evidence and statements by witnesses.

The atrocious incidents at Auschwitz began to be revealed by the investigation. In April 1963, 23 members of the SS and one "kapo", a prisoner functionary, were indicted. A few days before Christmas of 1963, the trial of these 22 defendants finally began.

Opening of the trial at the "Römer" (town hall) in Frankfurt

With its 183 days of court hearings until August 1965, during the course of which 360 witnesses testified, the first Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial was not the longest Nazi trial in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, but it had the biggest impact on the public and was the most significant in the long term. For the first time, German postwar society was confronted with the genocide mercilessly and comprehensively, especially through the harrowing testimony of the witnesses.

Some of the witnesses. Left column: Ella Lingens - Friedrich Eder - Tadeusz Paczula. Central column: Magda Szabo - Dounia Wasserstrom. Right column: Filip Müller - Rudolf Vrba - Hermann Langbein

However, judgments were not rendered as a "crime against humanity" in accordance with the modern category of international law, but in accordance with traditional German criminal law. Therefore, the individual and personal guilt of every individual defendant had to be proved, which was only possible to a limited extent after almost two decades had passed. On August 19 and 20, 1965, Presiding Judge Hans Hofmeyer delivered the judgments. Despite six life sentences, these judgments were very lenient. Ten defendants got off lightly, with some receiving short terms in the penitentiary as joint accessories to collaborative murder, and three defendants were acquitted owing to the lack of evidence.

Historical photographs
Some of the defendants. Above: Hans Stark, wearing an SS uniform - Wilhelm Boger - Robert Mulka, wearing an SS uniform. Below: Oswald Kaduk - Josef Klehr - Stefan Baretzki

These judgements filled many contemporaries, including Fritz Bauer, as the principal initiator of the trial, with bitterness. At the same time, they showed how little the legal position prevailing at that time allowed for the appropriate prosecution of the crimes against humanity committed on behalf of the German state.