At the end of World War Two, many Nazis went on trial for the war crimes they committed. The Frankfurt Trials were specifically for those who had been involved in the Holocaust, and in particular the Auschwitz death camp.
Only 63 of the thousands of SS personnel who served at Auschwitz were ever brought to justice. The Frankfurt Trials saw 22 of these war criminals charged for their role in the Holocaust. The trials lasted for over a year and a half, stretching from 20 December 1963 through to 20 August 1965. This was, at the time, West Germany’s longest ever legal case.
After World War Two many of those who had played a fundamental role in the Holocaust were able to evade capture. The majority of those who had helped run at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp managed to slide their way back intoday-to-day life in Germany after 1945. The fact that the SS has destroyed all records at Auschwitz made it almost impossible to identify those accused of war crimes and put them on trial for what they had done.
However, over time investigations - including those done by Simon Wiesenthal - had helped to bring together enough evidence to put the wheel of justice in motion and by 1963 investigative the trials could begin.
At this time, the world was fully aware of the shocking deeds that had been committed during the Holocaust. However, the fact that those accused of committing these acts did not seem abnormal continued to shock people, with many of them university educated seemingly regular people. It seemed implausible that these people could be responsible for mass murder.
The Frankfurt Trials changed this view; it brought to light just how horrific the acts that were committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau truly were, not to mention the people responsible for them. Among the things that were talked about at the trials were:
Mothers would refuse to leave their children when they were sent to the gas chambers, in which case they were often killed together.
When the prisoners arrived at the death camp, a camp doctors had the power to decide who would live and who would die with a mere flick of their wrist.
As many as 1,200 prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau would be forced into huts that could not actually accommodate any more than 500 people.
Not all of this was new; by 1963 much of this information was already known and had come to light in other war crimes trials, but the fact that the Frankfurt Trials took place nearly 20 years after the war had ended brought the horrors back into the public consciousness.
Many of the SS officers who appeared at the Frankfurt Trials used the same excuse as had been heard by so many Nazis at the end of the era.
For example, Wilhelm Boger – eventually sentenced to life in prison – argued that he only ever carried out orders. He said:
“I knew only one mode of conduct: to carry out the orders of superiors without reservations.”
Camp medical doctor Franz Lucas told the court that:
“I naturally sought to save as many Jewish lives as possible.”
Meanwhile, Karl Höcker stated in his defence: “I had nothing to do with it.”
The Frankfurt Trials saw 22 men stand on trial for their role in the Holocaust. Of those, just three were acquitted of all the charges they faced, while the rest were sentenced to various terms in prison, which for some included hard labour as well.
See also: Verdicts from the Frankfurt Trial
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