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40 years on from the Majdanek trial verdict

June 29, 2021

It was one of the biggest trials in post-war Germany dealing with Nazi-era war crimes. The verdicts against ex-SS guards and some high-ranking women were contentious but contributed to legal change.

Russian soldiers holding the skulls of murdered prisoners
The Majdanek concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland was the scene of appalling crimesImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

The trial concerning Nazi war crimes in the Majdanek concentration camp at the higher regional court in Düsseldorf lasted 474 days and called on roughly 350 witnesses, domestic and international. It was among the most comprehensive and closely followed in modern German history.

But beyond that, it was among the most emotional, for all involved.

"It was the most difficult trial of my career," state-assigned defense attorney Lothar Lindenau later recalled in a newspaper interview. "Worst of all was having to listen to the accounts of all those atrocities. From victims and perpetrators alike. It took an enormous toll."

Black-and-white photo of the judges and photographers in the courtroom
The trial in the Düsseldorf court lasted five years and was closely monitored by the mediaImage: Hartmut Reeh/dpa/picture-alliance

Only one sentence of life imprisonment

The trial ran for almost six years: from November 26, 1975, to June 30, 1981. It drew considerable public attention and sparked protests at which there were often calls to give tough jail sentences to the defendants. But this proved difficult so many years after the fact, as their direct involvement had to be demonstrated.

Only eight of 15 defendants were found guilty. One was acquitted. Proceedings against four were halted because of insufficient evidence directly implicating them. Two were excused on medical grounds, while another died in the second year of the trial. A 16th person was exempted from prosecution.

One woman received the sternest available sentence of life imprisonment, another female guard was sentenced to 12 years, while six male former SS officers were handed prison terms between 3.5 and 10 years.

To many observers in Germany and abroad, the sentences seemed mild measured against the seriousness of the crimes. After all, the prosecution had demonstrated the defendants' involvement in an array of crimes, not least organized mass killings.

Black-and-white photo of pile of skeletons in Majdanek concentration camp
Piles of remains were found by Russian troops at the Majdanek camp in 1944Image: Getty Images

These were often carried out under cynical SS operational code names. There was, for example, the "Operation Children" between May and September 1943, where youngsters were taken from their mothers' arms and sent to the gas chambers, and the "Operation Harvest Festival" of early November 1943, during which roughly 18,000 Jewish men and women were murdered at gunpoint in a single day.

According to recent estimates, around 80,000 people from various parts of Europe died at the Majdanek concentration camp, which was located on the outskirts of Lublin in German-occupied Poland. Imprisoned Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled and opposition activists were killed in gas chambers or shot, beaten, burned, starved and even worked to death. Soviet troops liberated the camp, which was not far from the modern-day border to Ukraine and Belarus, in July 1944.

Witnesses of the Shoah: Faces and memories

Giving the victims a voice

 At the mammoth trial in Düsseldorf, 215 concentration camp survivors offered stark testimony about the cruelty they had been subjected to. They told their own stories and also gave the dead a voice again.

"Our job in the camp was to be beaten, kicked, and humiliated. We were permitted to work and to starve. What was Monday or Sunday, July or August? We lived as animals in those camps," one witness told the court in comments that have been recorded in documentation at the Memorium Nuremberg Trials information center.

"The trial, which was very prominent in the media, deepened public consciousness of the German crimes, particularly those in occupied Eastern Europe," Markus Roth from the Frankfurt-based Fritz Bauer Institute, which focuses on the history and consequences of the Holocaust, told DW. "It showed that there were other camps besides Auschwitz, the best-known extermination camp, where people from many countries were tortured and murdered."

Witness testimony was crucial at the trial, as so often when prosecuting Nazi war criminals. As Roth explained, that was because of the requirements of German criminal law at that time.

"According to the then laws, it was always necessary to link individual defendants with specific crimes before a court could even reach a verdict," Roth said. But beyond that, he said, the witnesses' testimonies mattered "because the written record was full of holes, as the SS had destroyed a great deal of it. And some specific individual crimes were not documented, nor, of course, were they meant to be."

Black-and-white photo of protesters holding up signs outside the courthouse calling for harsh prison sentences for mass murderers
Protesters outside the court called for harsh prison sentences for the mass murderersImage: Klaus Rose/picture alliance

Generational change

But perhaps the biggest barrier to proper prosecution was a lost generation. It's true that some of Majdanek's serious war criminals were tried, and in several cases hanged, in two earlier sets of trials as early as 1944 and 1948 — but these all took place in liberated Poland. It took some 30 years for a German court to deal with the crimes, making the gathering of evidence that much harder.

Roth said it was important to bear in mind that there was not any pronounced desire on the part of German society to delve too deeply into "the crimes of the National Socialists, which, in a certain sense, were its own crimes." For a large part of that society was still made up of people who had propped up the Nazi regime prior to 1945, he said.

"That also goes the legal system and the police, the very state institutions charged with investigating such crimes," Roth said.

After a short period in the years immediately after the war when the so-called denazification process in the courts was still overseen by the Allied powers, prosecutions halted almost entirely in the 1950s. Roth said that it was only in the late 50s or early 60s, "including with the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1965," that a "broad, systematic investigation of the crimes started again."

Black-and-white photo of Hermine Ryan huddled with her defense attorneys in the courtroom
Majdanek's notorious SS prison guard Hermine Ryan was one of the main defendantsImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Female perpetrators in focus

Among other things, the Majdanek trials highlighted how some women had been active participators in the Holocaust.

One of the main accused, the Vienna-born Hermine Braunsteiner, who would become "Mrs. Ryan" after emigrating with her husband to Canada and then the US, had served only around two years behind bars before receiving amnesty from further prosecution in post-war Austria. Known to prisoners in Majdanek as the "Stomping Mare" because of her preferred weapons of choice, her jackboots, and her riding whip, she was living in New York when the renowned "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal tracked her down in 1975.

Like the other defendants, she showed little remorse in court, excusing her conduct by saying she had been young and inexperienced and "a small cog in the machine."

The court handed her two life sentences: for selecting 80 people for murder, for complicity in the murder of 102 people (in "Operation Children") and for contributing to selecting around 1,000 people for murder. She served 15 years but was released on medical grounds in 1996, dying in 1999 aged 80 in the western German city of Bochum.

A women's guard from Germany, Hildegard Lächert, received a 12-year sentence, the second-most severe at the trials.

And another of the more notorious defendants, Alice Orlowski, died early in the proceedings, well into her 70s by that point. She had spent 10 years in prison on a Polish post-war sentence and then received another 10 months for antisemitic utterances as a pensioner in West Germany. Like Braunsteiner, Orlowski had started out at the women-only Ravensbrück camp before transferring to Majdanek.

No pardon for Nazi perpetrators

A legal change in the question of responsibility

Despite its shortcomings, the Majdanek trial and others of its kind had a large impact. German society began to look more self-critically at its past and began to sharpen the legal tools at its disposal.

"The large Auschwitz trials and the Majdanek trial were, of course, proceedings that were keenly followed by the public. Yet it was still the case that only concrete crimes could be prosecuted. Thirty years later, with the 2011 verdict against John Demjanjuk, the former guard at the Sobibor concentration camp, we started to take a new path — away from the idea of a localized and concretely proven act toward the idea of complicity in a murderous system of mass killing," Thomas Will, a state prosecutor who heads the main legal agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting Nazi crimes in Germany, told DW.

That has meant that former staff at concentration and extermination camps can automatically be called to account for the crimes of that era.

"This mass murder was made possible only by the people standing ready and upholding the lethal conditions in these camps by guarding the inmates," Will said.

For all the flaws in Germany's prosecution of Nazi crimes, Will said, today's stance does demonstrate a desire "to deal with these appalling crimes in court, even when it concerns complicity by virtue of carrying out one's duties." For him, this change in the legal approach was a very necessary one: "The justice system has now managed to take the step, even though it is, of course, late in the piece."  

This article was translated from German.

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