Contemporary Histories Blog – Dr Mathew Turner: ‘A “Blueprint” for History?’

The Contemporary Histories Research Group is pleased to share our new series; a blog dedicated to exploring contemporary histories and history-making. Today’s entry is from Dr Mathew Turner:


A “Blueprint” for History?

13 April 2017

Today, the Auschwitz death camp is widely recognised as one of the world’s most significant cultural, political and historical sites. Incredibly, in 1960s West Germany – viewed by many as the nation of Holocaust perpetrators – the word “Auschwitz” was virtually unknown. This situation changed in the mid-1960s, through a single event: the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, which took place between December 1963 and August 1965. The trial brought to light the brutality committed in Auschwitz by the 22 men on trial for murder. The West German public closely followed the trial, and were reviled at the litany of horrors presented before the court each day. From a legal perspective, the historical context and direct evidence required to prove the charges against the defendants was substantial and presented the prosecution team with an immense challenge.

Auschwitz-Birkenau – Source

 For their part, prosecutors submitted a 700-page indictment to the court, much of which set out extensive and detailed historical context – arguably the most sophisticated historical analysis of Auschwitz written up to that date, by historian or lawyer. Though purpose-built for the West German courtroom, the indictment was a considerable scholarly achievement. Indeed, despite any trace of evidence, the indictment’s quality of scholarship has convinced more than a few contemporaries that professional historians must have had a hand in its composition. This is especially the case since the prosecution engaged the services of four historians to give evidence at the trial – Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat, Helmut Krausnick, and Hans-Adolf Jacobsen. Their task was to construct expert reports and give testimony in court. In the aftermath of the trial, the historians transformed these reports into the influential and best-selling book, Anatomie des SS-Staates.

There has, however, been some confusion with respect to the relationship between these two documents – the prosecution’s written indictment, and the historians’ expert witness reports that formed Anatomie. It is true to say that the historians and prosecutors wanted the same outcome in a legal and didactic sense: successful convictions, and use of the trial as a vehicle to increase the general public’s historical knowledge about Auschwitz. Both were tasked with providing the court extensive historical context. For this prosecution, that context was shaped by the requirements of German law, and the best means to prove the charges. For the historians, what they could say about context was deliberately limited by the prosecution’s needs and trial strategy. Despite many overlapping aims and approaches, the histories produced by the prosecution’s indictment on one hand, and the historians’ expert reports on the other, are quite different and frequently contradict each other.

Anatomie des SS-Staates- Source

These differences notwithstanding, at least one prominent historian of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Rebecca Wittmann, is convinced not only that the four expert witness historians aided in the drafting of the prosecution’s indictment, but that the book Anatomie des SS-Staates “had as its blueprint the Auschwitz Trial indictment.” Wittmann goes on to say that the historians’ “research and testimony in support of the indictment at the trial resulted in the publication” of Anatomie. Yet, there does not appear to be any evidence to suggest that historians and prosecutors collaborated in putting together the trial indictment or expert reports – and a good deal of evidence to suggest the two documents were written separately.

One crucial piece of evidence that Wittmann overlooks is a meeting that took place between prosecutors and historians prior to the beginning of the trial, on 7 November 1962. Here it was agreed that historical experts would be invited to attend the trial by prosecutors, and from the witness box, provide the court with “the necessary summary and classification of the entire scheme of political events at that time.” German law required that acts of murder not only be proven, but that “base motives” be demonstrated. In this case, that the killings were motivated by hatred or marked by “excessive” brutality. Historians were instructed, directly, not to mention the defendants or their crimes, but to leave these parts “missing” in the historical narrative for the prosecution to fill in the trial itself. The historians were also to produce written reports, or Gutachten, on topics specified by the prosecution and deemed most relevant to the trial. The Gutachten were to be tended to the court for scrutiny, and later formed the core of Anatomie des SS-Staates.

In comparing the versions of history presented to the court by the prosecution and by individual historians, some differences between immediately apparent. For the prosecution, the starting point of the indictment was not the background of the defendants, or charting of their alleged crimes, but Hitler coming to power in January 1933. As succinct as it is simplistic, the prosecution argues that from this point onwards “the foundation was laid for depriving Jews of their legal rights, for their removal from employment and expulsion from the country, and, ultimately, their physical destruction.” Straight, unambiguous lines are drawn from this programme to the use of gas at Auschwitz and other extermination centres. It was not merely that the mass murder of Jews was ordered from the “top down”, but according to the indictment, its path was linear.

Though the indictment presented a simplistic version of events, an argument can be mounted for the historical virtues of the indictment, representing as it surely did at the time of its drafting in 1963 the most comprehensive history of Auschwitz as a site of atrocity. Where admiration ends, shortcomings creep in, and the document’s frailties as a work of history – were it to be viewed through this lens – are unmistakable. Its judicial utility was aided by the reductionism of its historical complexities. This observation alone renders the prospect of historians helping to piece together, or even providing input, into an indictment – the prosecution’s core body of evidence – totally implausible. The prosecutorial team had a vested interest in presenting to the court a version of history that best supported their case against the defendants – and that, though admirable, this version was necessarily reductive and tailored.

Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial – Source

There are some similarities between the indictment and the expert report presented to the court by Helmut Krausnick. Though escaping the charge of reductionism that can be levelled and substantiated against the Frankfurt prosecutors, Krausnick’s report ostensibly conforms with the general thrust of the prosecution’s “top down” interpretation of Nazi power structures. Krausnick attempts to draw comparatively straight lines from the Nazis’ pre-war persecution of German Jews to the European-wide programme of extermination. As with the indictment, emphasis is placed on the evolution and escalation of anti-Jewish measures from the beginning of the Nazi regime in January 1933, with the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom – which saw widespread acts of violence and arson, and the arrest of thousands of Jews across Germany and Austria – identified as a turning point. Krausnick’s entire report is geared towards illuminating what he describes as “the road to the so-called ‘Final Solution’”. This metaphoric “road” became a popular euphemism adopted by subsequent historians to explore how the Holocaust happened, attributing it various characteristics – twisted, straight, paved – depending on their respective interpretations. While Krausnick makes no claims as to whether his “road” is serpentine or sealed, his report does encourage the view that all paths, irrespective of their qualities, inevitably led to Auschwitz and other death camps.

One historian’s report acted simultaneously to challenge the version of history advanced in the prosecution’s indictment, and to support its murder charges. Where Krausnick’s Gutachten traced a course to Auschwitz through antisemitism and escalating persecution, Martin Broszat’s focus was on the evolution of the concentration camp system. Broszat highlights the pragmatic and improvised development of concentration camps, which served varying purposes depending on the circumstances of their creation and ongoing utility, with no consistent or uniform approach to their construction or administration. There is no equivalent to Krausnick’s “road to the ‘Final Solution’” in Broszat’s report, whose interpretative path was not only winding, but hastily built – and continuously re-built to serve multipurpose camps such as Auschwitz.

In the very least, it is clear that the question of the relationship between the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial indictment, and the historians’ expert reports that formed Anatomie, is complex. Neither served as a “blueprint” for the other, and in parts their historical narratives align and conflict. The prosecution’s indictment should be held up as a piece of historical scholarship in its own right, even with the impositions of German law and simplified historical analysis kept in mind. Finally, the influence of the trial and of the prosecution’s own historical research on the drafting of the historians’ reports, and the book Anatomie des SS-Staates, should not be overstated.

Mathew has been invited to present an advanced version of this paper at the Thirteenth Meeting of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, to be held in Brisbane from 9 July to 13 July 2017.

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