Austria on Trial

‘Hitler’s First Victim’ Took Few War Criminals to Court

News | Matthias Wurz | May 2007

Following the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, where an international war crimes tribunal of the Allied Forces charged the highest ranking Nazi officials, Germany and Austria sought to charge other war criminals in a second series of proceedings known as the Auschwitz Trials.

While the extensive evidence presented in the German Trials in the 1960s,  where 22 people were indicted, captured international attention. Among those reporting about the trial was Arthur Miller. The Austrian trial of nearly a decade later was merely footnote.

Only two people were put on trial in Vienna in 1972: the architects Walter Dejaco and Fritz Ertl, both in charge of constructing the crematoria at Auschwitz in 1941. Historian Michael Thad Allen, author of The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps (2002), spoke in Vienna on Apr. 3 about the trials and the consequences of the acquittals at the Documentation Center of the Austrian Resistance.

The extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau became a synonym for industrialized mass murder committed by the SS during Nazi Rule. Approximately 1.1 to 1.6 million people, the majority Jews, were gassed and cremated there between 1941 and 1945, using Zyklon B nerve gas. The camp’s capacity allowed 20,000 persons to be exterminated each day.

This was, however, only one of a number of camps spread over the German-occupied territories at that time.

Ever since the end of World War II, Austria has portrayed itself as the first victim of Hitler’s aggression. This was reinforced by the Yalta Declaration of February 1945, where the leaders of the US, the Soviet Union and Great Britain outlined their vision for a peaceful Europe.

"The process of making Austrians into victims (of Nazi Germany) more or less required that the voice of the Holocaust’s real victims be silenced," said Allen. "The Vienna Auschwitz trial of Dejaco and Ertl proved one such case."

An Associate Professor of History at Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, US), he explained his interest into the technical side of the Holocaust by referring to the The Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994) by Robert Jan van Pelt, hoping to correct certain mistakes in existing research. Unlike the early historical assumptions of Auschwitz as a work camp that was gradually transformed into an extermination camp, Allen sought to contest that view.

He challenged the argument of Dejaco and Ertl, claiming that "Auschwitz morgues and crematoria began as nothing more than ‘normal’ installations, which were then transformed without their knowledge and against their will."

Another conclusion of the Austrian trial of 1972 was in Allen’s words,  "the defence created a narrative portraying the engineers as not knowing what they were doing." This projected the image of those responsible kulturlos, as the sociological perception of technicians within the society was that they did not possess background in the humanities that would, presumably, have equipped them to see the folly of their ways.

The Austrian prosecution, the historian concluded, was well ahead of the historical view of that time.

"Historians then believed in the defense narrative," said Allen.

Not surprisingly, all the expertise and arguments presented did not convince the jury of eight Austrians, who acquitted both architects. Hannah Arendt described trials like the one against Dejaco and Ertl of 1972 cases of delivering a judgment in a society where everyone is guilty.

After a second trial in1975, there were no further Austrian trials on charges on the Nazi genocide except for the psychiatrist Dr. Heinrich Gross in 2003. Austrian leaders had evidently hoped to avoid international embarrassment by verdicts like the ones delivered against Dejaco and Ertl.

The second result was for Austrian society to withdraw from any engagement with the Nazi past.

"The trial had no effect on the Austrian juridical system," Allen said in conclusion. In that sense, unlike the well-known German trials of the 1960s, they did little to open a public debate.

The society retained its view of itself as Hitler’s first victim.

Other articles from this issue