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Eyewitness to Genocide

The Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials, 1955-1966

Michael S. Bryant

Publication Year: 2014

One of the deadliest phases of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime’s “Operation Reinhard”
produced three major death camps—Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor—which claimed the
lives of 1.8 million Jews. In the 1960s, a small measure of justice came for those victims
when a score of defendants who had been officers and guards at the camps were convicted
of war crimes in West German courts. The conviction rates varied, however. While all but
one of fourteen Treblinka defendants were convicted, half of the twelve Sobibor defendants
escaped punishment, and only one of eight Belzec defendants was convicted. Also,
despite the enormity of the crimes, the sentences were light in many cases, amounting to
only a few years in prison.

In this meticulous history of the Operation Reinhard trials, Michael S. Bryant examines
a disturbing question: Did compromised jurists engineer acquittals or lenient punishments
for proven killers? Drawing on rarely studied archival sources, Bryant concludes
that the trial judges acted in good faith within the bounds of West German law. The key
to successful prosecutions was eyewitness testimony. At Belzec, the near-total efficiency
of the Nazi death machine meant that only one survivor could be found to testify. At Treblinka
and Sobibor, however, prisoner revolts had resulted in a number of survivors who
could give firsthand accounts of specific atrocities and identify participants. The courts,
Bryant finds, treated these witnesses with respect and even made allowances for conflicting
testimony. And when handing down sentences, the judges acted in accordance with
strict legal definitions of perpetration, complicity, and action under duress.

Yet, despite these findings, Bryant also shows that West German legal culture was
hardly blameless during the postwar era. Though ready to convict the mostly workingclass
personnel of the death camps, the Federal Republic followed policies that insulated
the judicial elite from accountability for its own role in the Final Solution. While trial
records show that the “bias” of West German jurists was neither direct nor personal, the
structure of the system ensured that lawyers and judges themselves avoided judgment.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press


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Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication, Epigraph

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List of Illustrations

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G. Kurt Piehler

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pp. ix-x

One of the most far-reaching legacies of World War II would be the sustained effort to bring to justice those who committed war crimes. For the general public and even for many scholars, the focus has traditionally centered on the most famous of the war crime trials, the International Military Tribunal held...

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Michael S. Bryant

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pp. xi-xii

Every work of scholarship is to some extent autobiography. In all my work, including the book you are holding in your hands, my discomfiture with the problem of evil shadows every page. The question of how our world could produce an event like the Holocaust bestrides this book, as it does most of my writing on...

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p. xiii

A great many people have been involved in the production of this book, both within the United States and abroad. I would like to thank my editors, Scot Danforth and Kurt Piehler, for supporting the book from proposal to published text; the University of Tennessee Press copyeditors, Gene Adair and Thomas...


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p. xiv

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pp. 1-22

Sometime in the final months of 1941, when the heat of late summer mellowed and the leaves stirred in the freshening breaths of approaching autumn, Adolf Hitler relayed an order, most likely verbal, as he was averse to written orders in matters of such grave consequence, to SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler for

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1. A Subject for Jurisprudence: From the Ulm Einsatzgruppen Trial to the Creation of the Ludwigsburg Central Office, 1956–1960

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pp. 23-34

Bernd Fischer-Schweder was an angry man. He had lost his appeal for reinstatement in his job as director of a refugee camp in the Ulm district of Wilhelmsburg, from which he had been dismissed when newly arrived refugees in 1955 recognized him as the ex–SS officer and former police director in Memel...

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2. The Queen of the Dead: The Investigation and Trial of the Belzec Death Camp

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pp. 35-70

Buchenwald survivor David Rousset called the Nazi system of oppression and death a “concentrationary universe,” a counter-cosmic nightmare operating in accordance with its own perverse, inhuman laws.1 We might think of the Operation Reinhard death camps in view of Rousset’s astronomy metaphor: if...

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3. Who Killed the Jews? The Treblinka Investigation and Trial

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pp. 71-124

For former death camp guards, there were strategies useful in avoiding a murder conviction in West German courts. At the Belzec trial, the defendants argued with varying degrees of success that they had acted under duress or that their activities within the camp did not involve murdering the Jews. Others contended that they had exploited every available option to secure reassignment...

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4. Murdering Star: The Sobibor Investigation and Trial

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pp. 125-190

On the same day as the Central Office in Ludwigsburg began its investigation into the Sobibor death camp, July 24, 1959, it requested from the senior prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt the records from the trial of Hubert Gomerski. Gomerski was one of three Sobibor staff members tried in 1950 in West Germany...

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5. Handy-Dandy Justice: Nazi Crimes and the Self-Absolution of the West German Judiciary

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pp. 191-222

The profession called upon to judge former death camp staff from Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka was no less implicated in Nazi atrocities than the defendants over whom they sat in judgment. At more than 90-percent membership in the NSDAP,1 the German judiciary had been the most Nazified professional group

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pp. 223-228

The reader will have noticed a certain tension in the argument of this book. On the one hand, it defends the basic integrity of the Operation Reinhard investigations and trials, finding that both the Central Office’s investigations and the subsequent adjudication of former death camp personnel from Belzec, Sobibor...


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pp. 229-244


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pp. 245-248


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pp. 249-290


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pp. 291-292


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pp. 293-302


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pp. 303-313

Production Notes

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p. 314

E-ISBN-13: 9781621900702
E-ISBN-10: 1621900703
Print-ISBN-13: 9781621900498
Print-ISBN-10: 1621900495

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 17
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 883663767
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Eyewitness to Genocide

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Historiography.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Poland -- Influence.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Law and legislation.
  • Operation Reinhard, Poland, 1942-1943.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Atrocities -- Poland.
  • War crime trials -- Germany.
  • Poland -- History -- Occupation, 1939-1945.
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