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Germany

German UNESCO wants Auschwitz trial part of global collective memory

The Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1963 was a turning point for dealing with Nazi crimes. Now Germany's UNESCO Commission wants the trial's documentation preserved in a world heritage archive.

About 8,000 Waffen SS and 200 SS overseers served at Auschwitz. Of them, 22 were defendants in the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz trial. They weren't accused only of individual murders, but first and foremost of having followed the "criminal orders of the German state leadership" and participating in a mass crime. The trial lasted 20 months and included 300 witnesses, 200 of them Auschwitz survivors. Six of the defendants were sentenced to life in prison; three were acquitted due to lack of evidence.

'It's impossible to forget' such a trial

Defendants on trial in December 1963

Defendants on trial in December 1963

This historic event produced 454 dossiers and 103 audio recordings, which the German UNESCO Commission has nominated to become part of the UNESCO "Memory of the world" register.

Joachim-Felix Leonhard, chairman of the register's German nomination committee, was 16 when he attended the trial for a day. "It’s impossible to forget," he said. "I still have the witnesses' voices in my ears and their faces before my eyes." For him, getting the trial’s documentation into the global register is a personal priority.

"The Auschwitz trial was at the time the most important opportunity for witnesses from all involved countries to be heard, in their own languages, with the help of interpreters," Leonhard, a historian, said. That makes the documentation of particular interest on a worldwide scale.

'Memory of the world' register

The Diary of Anne Frank is also part of the “Memory of the world”

The Diary of Anne Frank is also part of the "Memory of the world"

The goal of the register is to "obtain documentation of extraordinary value from archives, libraries and museums to make digitally available worldwide." Increasingly, that means submitting items from different countries that complement one another, Leonhard said. Material from the trial would therefore be another part of dealing with the Holocaust, alongside the Diary of Anne Frank, which is already a part of the register.

Fritz Bauer: A first to struggle with the past

Fritz Bauer is singularly responsible for putting Nazi criminals on trial in a time few others wanted to talk about the past.

Fritz Bauer is singularly responsible for putting Nazi criminals on trial at a time when few others wanted to talk about the past.

The trial would have never happened without then-state prosecutor Fritz Bauer. Germans wanted to forget World War II in the years following it. The Allies had already conducted a brief trial involving more senior Nazi criminals. Reconstruction took priority over dealing with the National Socialist past. Fritz Bauer, himself a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp in Denmark, became one of the most prominent early champions of criminal justice reform.

His perseverance led to the establishment of a Holocaust research and documentation center in his name, which features excerpts of the trial's audio recordings on its website.

Criminals without knowledge of wrongdoing

"What happened in Auschwitz no one would previously have thought possible," said Werner Konitzer, head of the Fritz Bauer Institute. The recordings reveal the defendants' attempt to justify their actions as having only followed orders. "You can tell they weren't just following orders," Konitzer said. "There's a cold hatred in their bureau speak."

He, like Leonhard, sees the meaning in having the trial documentation be part of the UNESCO register. "We don’t ask why we want nice things safeguarded as world heritage, but culture is also about dealing with difficult things and events."

There are currently 348 items in the UNESCO digital network, 22 of which come from Germany. A decision on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial is to be made in Paris next year.

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