Longest Nazi war crimes trial comes to end in West Germany

The last of the big West German trials of Nazi war crimes has come to an end -- 5 1/2 years after it began. The main defendant, Hermine Ryan, was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment June 30.

Spectators in the crowded Dusseldorf courtroom booed the companion verdicts of three to 12 years imprisonment for seven other Maidanek camp officials and the acquittal of the ninth defendant for lack of evidence. Some shouted, "It's a scandal" and "That's an offense against the victims of the Nazis."

This longest and most expensive of all German trials has also been criticized for its protracted nature and for the anguish it has caused some witnesses who were inmates of the Maidanek termination camp.

The extraordinary length of the trial came from the Teutonic throughness of the search for evidence; the late West German start in prosecuting Nazi crimes; the difficulty of establishing conclusive proof almost 40 years after mass murders that were designed to have few witnesses; and the delaying tactics of defenseattorneys.

Altogether several hundred witnesses were heard, either in the Dusseldorf state court or -- in cases where camp survivors were too elderly or too ill to travel -- in depositions taken in Poland, Israel, or the United States.

Originally 16 defendants were charged with the shooting, gassing, drowning, or fatal bludgeoning of at least 250,000 people -- out of an estimated 1.5 million Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents of the Nazis, and others who were killed in the Maidanek camp in Poland between 1941 and 1944.

One defendant died in the interim, one was ruled unfit for trial, and four were acquitted in 1979 for lack of evidence of their specific participation in specific murders.

In the end only former camp overseer Ryan, "the mare," as she was known to inmates because of her alleged fondness for kicking prisoners, could be convicted of having herself committed murder. On two counts. Her sentence was life imprisonment.

The seven others -- Maidanek camp overseer Hildegard Lachert, (12 years imprisonment); deputy camp director Hermann Hackmann (10 years); Emil Laurich, ( 8 years); Heinz Villain (6 years); Fritz Petrick (4 years); Arnold Strippel (3 1 /2 years); and Thomas Ellwanger (3 years) -- were convicted of aiding and abetting murder.

The Maidanek trial ran the gamut of general and individual proof of Nazi era murders of an estimated 5 1/2 million Jews, half a million Gypsies, and 6 million other civilians. One defense lawyer resurrected the old argument -- now discredited by the vast majority of West Germans as well as foreigners -- that there is no evidence that more than 100,000 Jews were killed in the Nazi period.

Defense lawyers tried to disqualify one witness -- a leading historian -- as "prejudiced" because he had studied under a Jew.

In countering the defense, the prosecution presented expert historical evidence that industrial-scale murders were, in fact, committed systematically in Nazi Germany. They proved to the court's satisfaction that it was known at the time that mass murders were being committed at Maidanek: evidence included written orders for tons of deadly Zyklon-B gas that was used only for killing people, and records of the contemporary corruption trial of one Maidanek SS official who had beaten prisoners to death to steal their gold teeth.

On the basis of this evidence the prosecution demanded five life sentences, three prison sentences of 5 to 10 years, and one acquittal.

The West German failure to begin trying Nazi-era murders soon after the war stemmed partly from allied cold war policy and partly from conservative West German government policy. The Western occupation powers originally prosecuted Nazi-era murderers, then subordinated justice to the higher priority of rallying former Germa elites against the new Soviet threat.

By 1959 virtually all those jailed by the Western powers had been freed; and under allied regulations, neither these persons -- nor even those who had been investigated by the occupation but not convicted -- could be investigated a second time by West German courts.

When Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and put him on trial in the early 1960s, this finally galvanized world public opinion against the inaction in West Germany. Prosecutions began in earnest and have continued until the presen t.

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