Of Crimes, Punishments, Reprieves and Document Number 022-L (Anonymous)
Having passed their entrance examinations, Rudolf Vrba and his wife-to-be Gerta left the train station in the Slovakian city of Bratislava to attend university in Prague on September 18, 1945. She was planning to study medicine; he would study chemical engineering.
After an eight-hour, overnight journey, the soon-to-be-married pair admired the grand and ornate Art Nouveau entrance to Prague’s Wilsonovo Nádraží train station named for American president Woodrow Wilson who had helped create the Republic of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War One.
After their personal lives had been riddled with tragedy, the pair at last felt a sense of optimism. Preferring to concentrate on the future, neither would have known much about the fact that an organization called the International Military Tribunal (IMT) had been formulated at a London conference about a month earlier to oversee trials of suspected Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Germany.
Likewise, the prosecutors and their minions tasked with prosecuting the Nazis’ unparalleled villainy knew nothing about a Slovakian resistance fighter and would-be scientist who had twice changed his name from Walter Rosenberg to Rudolf Vrba (first, as a clandestine pseudonym; second, as a legalized name).
The words and deeds of Rudolf Vrba would nonetheless serve the Allies as part of the foundation of evidence that prosecutors would rely on to accuse prominent Nazis of both war crimes and crimes against humanity…
The document prepared in a Zilina basement in 1944, later identified as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, was included in the prosecution materials prepared for the four chief justices (from Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States) who were called upon to preside over the openings trials of 199 defendants at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.
The accumulation of eyewitness reports first dubbed “German Extermination Camps—Auschwitz and Birkenau” was available to prosecutors who persuaded judges to convict 161 of those 199 defendants, and to sentence 37 defendants to death. The report written by Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler was filed into the court records as Document Number 022-L.
Supporting documentation within Document Number 022-L included information gleaned from Auschwitz escapees Arnost Rosin and Czesław Mordowicz, as well as the (erroneously titled) Polish Major’s Report in which Witold Pilecki claimed up to 30,000 people were gassed in one day as early as 1943.
Eventually, these reports would be identified collectively as the Auschwitz Protocols. Historian R. Braham referred to them as such as early as 1981 in his essential work, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary.
Unbeknownst to Rudolf Vrba in 1945, at Nuremberg, judges and prosecutors had access to the anonymous version of the Vrba-Wetzler Report that was issued, in English, by the Executive Office of the U.S. War Refugee Board, on November 26, 1944.
Although at least six million private citizens had been ruthlessly killed by the pro-Nazi regimes of Europe, only a few hundred individuals would be arraigned for “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”
Of the thirteen post-World War II show trials, the best-known would be convened at Nuremberg where 24 prominent Nazi leaders would stand trial. These included Herman Goring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, Wilhelm Frick, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank, Konstantin von Neurath, Erich Raeder, Karl Doenitz, Alfred Jodl, Arthur Rosenberg, Baldur von Schirach, Julius Streicher, Fritz Sauckel, Albert Speer and Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Martin Bormann would be tried in absentia.
John J. McCloy, as American High Commissioner for Occupied Germany (HICOG), would later significantly reduce the sentences for dozens of convicted Nazi war criminals, as will be outlined below. According to the National WW II Museum of New Orleans: Of the 142 Germans convicted of war crimes at the initial Nuremberg Military Tribunals from December 1946 to April 1949, 88 men and one woman remained incarcerated at Landsberg Prison in January of 1951. Of these 89, 78 received clemency, which included commutations of 10 out of 15 death sentences. Thirty-two prisoners, including former armaments magnate Alfried Krupp and eight of his co-defendants, became eligible for immediate release. A group of 29 convicted Nazi war criminals walked free as a group on the morning of Saturday, February 3, 1951 due to the interventions of McCloy.
When listening to the Auschwitz [Nuremberg] trials, I realized that the Nazis from Auschwitz had not gotten their punishment, but, in fact, got elevated in life.
– Rudolf Vrba, 1972
The first and most-prolonged of thirteen showcases for justice was the Nuremberg Trials (November 20, 1945 – April 13, 1949). It is easy to find information about these high-profile proceedings that served as the basis for a Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracy as a wise and compassionate American judge. Far less known are a ‘dirty dozen’ trials overseen by Americans, rather than by an international consortium. John J. McCloy and his minions subsequently commuted and lessened the jail terms for dozens of convicted war criminals and Nazi businessmen.
- Euthanasia was widely prevalent in Nazi Germany. By 1942, there were already more than 38,000 doctors who were members of the Nazi Party. Nevertheless, during the seven-month-long Doctors’ Trial (December 9, 1946 – August 20, 1947), only 16 of the 23 physician-defendants were found guilty; seven were hanged at Landsberg Prison (where Hitler had dictated the first volume of Mein Kampf to his secretary Rudolf Hess in 1924).
- The bleak landscape of cruelty and horror known as The Holocaust had so many perpetrators of murder that even relatively high-profile Nazis were reduced to bit players in the pages of history. For the The Milch Trial (January 2 – April 16, 1947), German Field Marshal Erhard Milch was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, inhumane treatment of prisoners and medical experiments. The sentence was commuted by John J. McCloy, High Commissioner of Germany, to 15 years of imprisonment in 1951. Then Milch was paroled in June of 1954.
- The complicity of a mere sixteen German judges was examined in The Judges’ Trial (March 5 – December 4, 1947) during which Brigadier-General Telford Taylor accused the German judiciary as a whole for defiling the German temple of justice and delivering Germany into the dictatorship of the Third Reich. Eventually only ten defendants were convicted. Under McCloy’s watch, their sentences were again much reduced whereupon only one German judge remained in prison by 1951. Oswald Rothaug had been sentenced to life imprisonment. The court ruling said, “We find that Oswald Rothaug represented in Germany the personification of the secret Nazi intrigue and cruelty. He was and is a sadistic and evil man.” Nonetheless, he was released as a free man in 1956.
- Not to be confused with Oswald Rothaug, the SS Lieutenant-General Oswald Pohl had exercised direct control of the overall concentration camp system in concert with Himmler. According to the prosecution, approximately ten million persons had been imprisoned in these camps. Along with 17 other officials of the Economic and Administrative Office of the SS, Pohl was charged with profiting from slave labour camps and factories, as well as the looting of Jewish properties and possessions amounting to the largest overall theft in history. During the WVHA Trial (April 8 – November 3, 1947), Pohl argued that “the fact that I was in charge of all the concentration camps in Germany from 1942 until the end is beside the point.” Presiding Judge Robert Toms, on loan from the Circuit Court of Michigan, saw it differently. Pohl and three other defendants were sentenced to be hanged; three others were acquitted, twelve received prison terms. As the head of WVHA (Wirtschaft und Verwaltungshauptamt, or the Economic and Administrative Main Office), Pohl was eventually executed by hanging on June 8, 1951. The main camps that fell within the purview of WVHA were:
- Auschwitz, Poland; labor and extermination camp, est 1940. Commandant: Rudolf Hoess, Arthur Liebehenschel, Josef Kramer, Heinrich Schwarz, Fritz Hartjenstein, Richard Baer. Sub-camps: Auschwitz 1: political prisoners. Auschwitz 2: Birkenau (extermination). Auschwitz 3: Monowitz (labor camp “Buna” for I. G. Farben). The 3 camps were administratively separated in 1943. 1.1 – 1.5 million killed.
- Belzec, Poland; extermination camp, 1941-1943. Commandants: Christian Wirth, Gottfried Hering. 600,000 killed. Bergen-Belsen, 1943-45. Commandants: Rudolf Haas, Josef Kramer. Primarily a holding camp for Jews awaiting transfer or exchange; at end of war received inmates evacuated from other camps.
- Buchenwald, near Weimar, est 1937. Commandants: Karl Koch, Hermann Pister. Chief admin. officer: Barnewald. Camp doctor: W. Hoven. Labor camp; medical experiments; selective executions.
- Chelmno(or Kulmhof), Poland; extermination camp, 1941-1944. Commandants: Herbert Lange, Hans Bothmann. 150,000 killed.
- Dachau, near Munich; est Mar 1933. Commandants: Hilmar Waeckerle, Theodor Eicke. 150 branches in southern Germany and Austria. Primarily for political prisoners. Training center for SS and concentration camp officials. Medical experiments. 32,000 killed.
- Flossenburg, near Weiden; est 1938. Commandants: Jakob Weiseborn, Egon Zill, Max Koenig, Karl Kuenster. Labor camp, including work-to-death quarry operation.
- Gross-Rosen, near Striegau. Commandants: Johannes Hassebroek, Arthur Roedl, Wilhelm Gideon. Labor camp, primarily in munitions industry.
- Herzogenbusch, the Netherlands, 1943-44. Sub-camp for women: Vught. Camp for Dutch prisoners and hostages; transit camp for Jews shipped to extermination camps.
- Maidanek or Majdanek (Lublin), Poland, 1941-44; extermination camp. Commandants: Karl Koch, Hermann Florstedt, Martin Weiss, Max Koegel. More than 200,000 killed.
- Mauthausen, Austria, 1938-45. Commandants: Albert Sauer, Franz Ziereis, 1944-45. Work camp. More than 71,000 killed.
- Natzweiler, near Strasbourg, 1941-44. Work camp; medical experiments. Commandants: Egon Zill, Fritz Hartjenstein, Hans Huettig, Heinrich Schwarz. More than 5,000 killed.
- Neuengammenear Hamburg, 1938-45. Commandants: Martin Weiss, Max Pauly. Labor camp for armaments. 56,000 killed.
- Papenburgor Emsland camps, near the Netherlands, 1934-45. Camp for criminals and later political prisoners. Managed by the Justice Ministry rather than the concentration camp administration.
- Ravensbrueck, near Fuerstenberg, 1939-45. Camp for women, with a small sub-camp for men. Commandants: Max Koegel, Fritz Suhren. Work camp; medical experiments; selective executions.
- Sachsenhausen, including Oranienburg, near Berlin; est 1936. Commandants: Hermann Baranowski, Hans Loritz, Walter Eisfeld, Anton Kaindl. Work camp; selective executions; medical experiments.
- Sobibor, Poland, 1942-43. Commandants: Richard Thomalla, Franz Stangl, Franz Reichleitner. Extermination camp. More than 150,000 killed.
- Stutthof, Poland, 1942-45. Commandants: Max Pauly, Paul Hoppe. Labor and extermination camp.
- Theresienstadt (or Terezin), Czechoslovakia. 1941-45. Commandants: Siegfried Seidl, Anton Burger, Karl Rahm. Created as a model or “show” camp; became transit camp for extermination of Jews.
- Treblinka, Poland. extermination camp, 1941-1943. Commandants: Irmfried Eberl, Franz Stangl, Kurt Franz. 750,000 – 900,000 killed.
The first of three major trials of German industrialists was the seldom-cited Flick Trial (April 19 – December 22, 1947) during which six members of the Flick Cartel were arraigned for using slave labour and prisoners of war, as well as deporting people for labour. Friedrich Flick and his senior director Otto Steinbrinck were also charged for their membership in the “Circle of Friends of Himmler” founded in 1932 by Wilhelm Keppler and taken over by Himmler in 1935. There were three acquittals. One man was released in 1949; a fifth died in 1949. Sentenced to seven years, Flick was released early on August 25, 1950 and soon reconstituted his business concerns, becoming the largest shareholder in Daimler-Benz and the richest person in West Germany. While Flick was a convicted war criminal, he was still a filthy rich one. Consequently, he garnered the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1963) and the Bavarian Order of Merit. By the time he died in 1972, had had 330 companies and 300,000 employees. Thanks to McCloy’s clemency interventions, Flick died as one of the richest men in the world. His grandson is German-Swiss billionaire Friedrich Christian Flick.
- The oddly named Hostage Case (July 15, 1947 – February 19, 1948) indicted twelve German officers for a variety of offences including the murders of civilians in Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia; ordering the murder of surrendered troops; and denying prisoners’ rights according to the Geneva Convention. Two defendants were acquitted; one committed suicide in custody, another was declared unfit for trial. Even though Field Marshall Wilhelm List was sentenced to life imprisonment, thanks to McCloy’s clemency initiatives he was pardoned in 1953. He lived as a free man until his death in 1971. The mass executions of Jews within jurisdictions controlled by Nazi Germany—such as Lithuania, for example—went largely unrecognized and unpunished.
- Given that American High Commissioner for Occupied Germany (HICOG), John J. McCloy, had worked on cases as lawyer on behalf of German’s largest industrial company, IG Farben, one might think the American-managed IG Farben Trial (August 27, 1947 – June 11, 1948) would have erred on the side of rigour in its sentencing for the twenty-four executives who were placed on trial in order to stress impartiality. But instead ten of the accused were set free and the sentencing for the remaining fourteen others was relatively light. Standard Oil was complicit with IG Farben and McCloy had also worked for Standard Oil. In retrospect, one does not have to be a genius to connect the dots. The executives were arraigned on five counts but all defendants would be acquitted on counts a) and e):
- a) the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression and invasions of other countries;
- b) committing war crimes and crimes against humanity through the plunder and spoliation of public and private property in countries and territories that came under German occupation;
- c) committing war crimes and crimes against humanity through participating in the enslavement and deportationfor slave labor of civilians from German-occupied territories and of German nationals;
- d) participation (by defendants Christian Schneider, Heinrich Buetefisch, and Erich von der Heyde) in the SS, a recently-declared criminal organization;
- e) and participation in a common plan or conspiracy to commit crimes against peace.
Thirteen defendants received sentences from one-and-a-half years to eight years including time served during the trial process. Hence, two defendants were released immediately, having been in custody longer than their sentences.
- Other than the singular Milch Trial with its lone defendant, the only trial in which there were no acquittals was The Einsatzgruppen Trial (September 29, 1947 – April 9, 1948) for perpetrators of mobile death squads, particularly in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s advance into Russia. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. the Eisatzgruppen commanders killed at least 1.5 million, and possibly more than 2 million in Soviet territory, mainly via in mass shootings or gas vans. For those victims, the prosecution took two days to present its case based on their own meticulously kept records. The next six months were devoted to the defense of the accused perpetrators who included eight lawyers, a university professor and an art collector. The actual killers of gypsies, Jews and Communist Party members, including 90,000 Jews in Ukraine and Crimea, were evidently beneath the law. Fourteen defendants were sentenced to hang; but ultimately ten of those death sentences were converted to prison terms. Thanks to McCloy’s interventions, others who received prison sentences were released outright. One of the condemned perpetrators, SS Major-General Otto Ohlendorf, was not ashamed of killing children. “I believe it is very simple to explain,” he said, “if one starts from the fact this order did not only try to achieve security but also a permanent security; for that reason the children were people who would grow up and surely, being the children of parents who had been killed, they would constitute a danger no smaller than that of the parents.”
- Deportation, torture and murder of foreign nationals was the catch-all-but-prosecute-a-few term for the parameters of RuSHA Trial (October 29, 1947 – March 10, 1948) in which fourteen officials from the Office of Strengthening Germanism and the Race and Settlement Office were charged for implementing pure race policies. The lone female defendant was acquitted. RuSHa stood for Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt, or the “Race and Settlement Main Office.” The chief defendant, Ulrich Greifelt, was sentenced to life in prison but died in 1949. His henchman Rudolf Creutz was released in 1951 and lived freely until 1980. Most of the other convicts were released prematurely in either 1951 or 1954 in keeping with McCloy’s clemency initiatives. Others were released upon judgement for time already served.
The second most high profile prosecutions were dubbed The Krupp Trial (December 8, 1947 – July 31, 1948) because Alfreid Krupp, the dapper 38-year-old son of Gustav Krupp, was charged in place of his ailing father, along with eleven other executives of Krupp Industries, the main armaments manufacturer for the Third Reich. As CEO of Krupp Holding since 1943, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach (his full name) was one of countless German manufacturers who had knowingly profited from the brutal slave labour regimes implemented by the SS. Sentencing was lenient, ranging from terms of three to twelve years (for Alfried Krupp), with one acquittal. Although Krupp had been ordered to forfeit family properties and company control, John McCloy directly intervened, befriended Krupp and restored his holdings. Krupp was granted early release in 1953 and by 1960 Krupp Industries was once more one of the world’s most successful companies. Krupp reinvented himself as a prominent German philanthropist before he died in 1967.
- The proceedings of the High Command Trial (December 30, 1947 – October 28, 1948) were noteworthy partly because one of the defendants, Johannes Blaskowitz, committed suicide on the first day of the trial. The thirteen remaining defendants included a former admiral and a high-ranking Wehrmacht generals from the German High Command. Yielding to pressure from the Protestant and Catholic churches, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Bundestag, U.S. High Commissioner John McCloy established a review panel chaired by Judge David Peck of New York whereby sentences were limited. By 1954, all of the still-incarcerators felons had been returned to their homes.
- The longest-lasting of the twelve, post-Nuremberg trials, the Ministries Trial (January 6, 1948 – April 13, 1949) resulted in an 833-page judgement and the sole admission of guilt from defendant Ernst Wilhelm Bohle. Once more, nearly all the convicted defendants were released in 1951 in accordance with the clemency directives of John McCloy. These included Secretaries of State Ernst von Weizsäcker, Gustav Adolf Steengracht von Moyland and economics advisor Wilhelm Keppler.
Overall, according to Wikipedia, the Nuremberg judicial proceedings identified some 3,887 legal cases that could have been pursued—but an estimated 3,400 of these were jettisoned. The 489 cases that went to trial prosecuted 1,672 defendants. That’s roughly one defendant for every 3,627 Jews that were murdered. There were 1,416 guilty verdicts but less than 200 resulted in executions. Almost 300 German nationals were sentenced to life imprisonment but nearly all of those sentences were commuted. Nearly everyone who was convicted during the thirteen aforementioned trials in response to the most devastating killing spree in history were released from captivity in prison prior to 1960.
For further reading about John McCloy’s creation of the Advisory Board on War Criminals, which likely violated Control Council Law No. 10, and his decisions to grant clemency to a majority of Nuremberg Military Tribunal defendants, see Kevin Jon Heller’s The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2011). Also, refer to Control Council Law No. 10, “Punishment of Persons Guilty of War Crimes, Crimes Against Peace and Against Humanity,” December 20, 1945, 3 Official Gazette Control Council for Germany 50-55 (1946).
Earl, Hillary. The SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Hébert, Valerie. Hitler’s Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Heller, Kevin Jon. The Nuremberg Military Tribunal and the Origins of International Criminal Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Priemel, Kim Christian. The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Remy, Steven P. The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.