An outstanding new study about the largest regional Gestapo headquarters in Hitler’s realm

Elisabeth Boeckl-Klamper , Thomas Mang, and Wolfgang Neugebauer, The Vienna Gestapo 1938-1945: Crimes, Perpetrators, Victims. (Berghahn, New York and Oxford, 2022). $ 153,45.

Readers familiar with the Anschluss era in Austria, including the mass appeal of Hitler and National Socialism as well as the large number of Austrian officials involved in the expulsion and massacre of their Jewish fellow citizens, will be astonished, even shocked, by the revelations in this outstanding study. Based on exhaustive research in Germany, Israel, the United States, Slovenia the Russian Federation, and Austria itself, the authors demonstrate that with a staff of merely 900 officials and employees the Vienna Gestapo controlled not only most of the “Ostmark,” but also became  the largest Gestapo headquarters in Greater Germany. Furthermore, many of its officials distinguished themselves as commanders of SS Einsatzgruppen and even Nazi extermination centers.

            The book is divided into fourteen chapters, but in fact constitutes three main parts: the first discusses the establishment, organization, personnel, and routine business undertaken at Gestapo headquarters, the second the brutal persecution of the Jews and résistance groups, the third post war prosecutions of Gestapo officials by the judiciary of the Second Austrian Republic.

            The authors begin by explaining that even before the Anschluss refugee Austrian Nazis in the Altreich, most notably, Rudolf Mildner and Adolf Eichmann had drawn up extensive plans for the establishment of a Gestapo branch in Vienna that would control of much of Lower Austria as well. And because most of the police force, such as the chief, Otto Steinhäusl, were themselves Nazis or sympathetic to Hitler’s movement it took only a few days for the Vienna Gestapo to begin operations. On 26 March, for example, the Gestapo seized the capacious Metropole Hotel as headquarters. Simultaneously, agents began rounding up Jews and leaders of the hated Christian Corporative regime to be dispatched to Dachau. Here and throughout the book the writers stress that with sole exception of Franz Huber, a Bavarian Gestapo official working closely with Reinhard Heydrich, leading members of the Vienna Gestapo were highly educated Austrians committed to Nazi ideology. Section heads tended to be lower middle class in background, though a number possessed much needed technical skills, others seeking job security. Between seventeen and thirty percent of the staff were women, employed as clerical workers and typists. None committed atrocities, but as the authors stress, they supported the regime and were fully aware of Gestapo crimes, including the deportation and extermination of the Jews, even in Auschwitz. Postwar claims to the contrary, only ten percent of the Vienna Gestapo were Reich Germans; rotating on a regular basis they served only a brief spell in the Metropole Hotel.

            Unlike the East German Stasi or the Soviet KGB, the authors demonstrate that the Vienna Gestapo was not a large organization capable of monitoring the entire population in those areas it controlled. Instead, the Gestapo relied on informants and denouncers. The authors also take partial issue with Robert Gellately’s contention that the Nazi state was a “self-policing society.” Whether this was the case remains an open question. However, there can be no doubt that Hitler’s regime was both popular and enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority of the Austrian people. To be sure, few were aware of the brutalities of Gestapo imposed on their victims, but historical scholarship has revealed that hundreds of Viennese onlookers cheered as they witnessed trucks carrying Jews to collection centers to be deported to concentration camps or extermination centers in the East.

            In the second part of this study (chapters 9-17), the authors discuss the savage torture and persecution of the Jews and other resistance groups. The cruel, vindictive, and murderous persecution of Austrian Jewry has been described and analyzed for decades, particularly by historians of the Holocaust. Under the auspices of Gestapo office II B 4 Viennese Jews were robbed of their assets, forced to emigrate, ghettoized, and in 1941-42 driven to collection points where they were dispatched to extermination centers. As mentioned earlier, there is little new in these pages, although the authors provide exact amounts of Jewish assets seized by the regime, for example as early as 28 June 1938 the Nazis seized, RM 3,903,391, often keeping some of the belongings for themselves. And after Kristallnacht in November, the Vienna Gestapo shipped RM 1,000,000 in jewelry to Berlin, Finally, the authors calculate that Schirach, Ebner, and Huber were responsible for the murder of 48,000 individuals in the Holocaust.

            In discussing the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church the authors remind readers that the Nazis confronted a dilemma. On the one hand, the regime did not wish to alienate the overwhelmingly Catholic population, not least because the Anschluss had been welcomed by Cardinal Theodor Innitzer. On the other hand, the Gestapo sought both to seize clerical property and challenge the Christian religion itself. Unsurprisingly, it was Gestapo Deputy Chief Karl Ebner, who orchestrated the assault. While formally leaving the Church in 1938, he retained many friends among the higher clergy, who helped him pick and choose what was to be secularized or expropriated. These measures included the imposition of a church tax, seizing the nearby abbey of Klosterneuburg, confiscating various pamphlets, and monitoring the homilies of parish priests and curates. At the same time, the Gestapo proceeded brutally against organized Catholic Conservative resistance groups, most notably those led by Karl Roman Scholz, Jakob Kastelic, and Karl Lederer. To this list may be added Sister Maria Restituta. All of whom, as well as many of their followers, were savagely beaten and sent to the guillotine. The Vienna Gestapo also persecuted and murdered members of smaller Catholic Conservative factions, though not as viciously as they did Communist groups.

            That the Vienna Gestapo proceeded mercilessly against Communist resistance cells is both well known and documented, particularly during the period following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. All but a handful of KP members apprehended by the Gestapo were tortured to death or executed. In March, 1944, for example, a third of all arrests, including those taken into custody for pretty crimes, were Communists. Nearly all of these had been betrayed by paid informants. The stool-pigeons, in turn, broadcast false information that enabled the Gestapo to track down and capture Soviet parachutists. In dealing with Revolutionary Socialists the Vienna Gestapo pursued policies of ambiguity. On the one hand, those of Jewish origin, such as Käthe Leichter, were dispatched to concentration camps or extermination centers, On the other, a number who had participated in the February 1934 uprising tended to be well treated, in some cases hired as municipal workers or employees. The authors provide details on the maltreatment of Socialist resisters, as well as those who had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, but for the most part concede that given their relatively small numbers they managed to avoid Gestapo detection and arrest.

            Those pages devoted to the suppression of non-organized resistance are exceptionally revealing. The authors note that defeatist statements, malicious gossip, anti-Hitler jokes, and listening to foreign radio broadcasts were not uncommon. Some, such as simple wisecracks, were not even hostile to the Nazi regime. As might be expected, those accused of what were minor misdemeanors were conveyed by anonymous letters, many of which revealed knowledge of the Holocaust. The Gestapo responded by taking drastic measures against the accused. Of those arrested for “radio crimes,” for example, nearly all were imprisoned and over half condemned to death. The objective here was to intimidate the population, by demonstrating that even minor crimes would not go unpunished. Much worse was the fate of those apprehended for helping or hiding Jews in the eyes of the regime a capital offense. No fewer than 1,532 “Jewish Helpers” were captured and subsequently murdered. The fact that only 110 Austrians have been honored as members of the “righteous among nations” at Yad Vashem, the authors lugubriously conclude, proves once again the ubiquitous anti-Semitic sentiment that prevailed in the ”Ostmark” during the Anschluss era.

            Interestingly, the Vienna Gestapo was only marginally involved in the persecution of homosexuals as was the case elsewhere in Hitler’s domain. However, their agents did establish an “Arbeitserziehungslager” in Oberlanzendorf, apparently the only one in annexed Austria. Regulations stipulated that incarcerated youngsters should have taught proper work habits, but Gestapo men preferred shackling, beatings, and short rations, so that many boys died of disease and physical abuse. At this point the authors modulate to describe the activities of those Viennese Gestapo officials posted on “external deployment,” that is, the mass murder of hostages, partisans, POWs, Jews and other undesirables throughout Nazi occupied Europe. Among the most prominent were Heinrich Berger, who orchestrated the Lidice and Lezaky massacres in 1942 and Karl Macher, who committed numerous crimes in Greece. The authors provide the names of other Individuals, including agents operating in France against refugee Austrian Communists. In 1948 an Austrian Volksgericht sentenced Berger to eleven years in prison, but the authors point out that he served only two years behind bars; in contrast, Macher was less fortunate in that he was re-arrested in 1970 and sentenced to thirty months in prison. As for those Gestapo officials most responsible for the spasm of 1945 massacres that occurred in Vienna and Lower Austria – Mildner, Huber, and Ebner – all three escaped retribution or punishment. On the other hand, the authors remind us that some of the mass murders that took place in April, 1945 were often spontaneous and in a number of cases undertaken by civilians seeking revenge for the Allied bombing raids.

In the final third of their study the authors address the prosecution of Vienna Gestapo officials by the postwar Austrian government. This was no easy task as most Gestapo records had been burned or destroyed. Even so, by the end of May 1945, somewhere between 2,000 to 5,500 Nazis had been taken into custody. A few months later the Renner government established Volksgerichte (people’s courts) to try Nazi war criminals. It is remarkable that in the following decade 136,829 individuals were arraigned, 28,148 indicted, and 13,607 convicted, including 43 who were sentenced to death. Aside from major figures such as Seyß-Inquart, Kaltenbrunner, Schirach and five others who were tried in Nuremburg, died, or disappeared, the Volksgericht managed to identify and try many important officials of the Vienna Gestapo, the most important of whom, the authors contend, were Karl Ebner, Othmar Trenker, Karl Silberbauer, Anton Brödl and Johann Sanitzer.

            Exactly why the authors chose to discuss the cases of these seven perpetrators is not altogether clear, but the selection can be regarded as paradigmatic. Franz Huber, for example, had been interned in Nuremberg-Langwasser after the war. In April, 1948 camp authorities requested that his file be forwarded to them for examination. The Vienna police responded with only exiguous information. As a consequence, a German Spruchkammer classified him as a “lesser offender,” sentencing him to one year’s probation and the payment of a small fine. Two years later, he was retried but judged to be a “particularly hardworking police officer.” Soon thereafter the CIA recruited Huber as source of information about the Soviet Union and shortly after permitted him to join Reinhard Gehlen’s Bundesnachrichtendienst. In short, the man who had headed the largest regional Gestapo headquarters in Hitler’s realm received little more than a slap on the hand, retiring in 1967 with a sizeable pension.

            Karl Ebner, Deputy Chief of the Vienna Gestapo responsible for the deportation of Jews to the East, also received relatively lenient treatment. British authorities remanded him to the Austrian judiciary in 1947 to be tried the following year. Prosecutors presented irrefutable evidence of Ebner’s major role in the looting and deportation of the Jews, for which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, the court also took into account the testimony of twenty-three higher clergymen, prelates, and officials of the Catholic Cartellverband whom Ebner had protected as “reinsurance.” All but four maintained that the defendant has saved the lives of many people, thus saving him from what should have been a death sentence. In 1953 Ebner was pardoned and in 1960 his academic title restored.

            Othmar Trenker’s career trajectory and postwar fate resembled that of Ebner. Known for his brutal treatment of Gestapo victims, Trenker was tried by the Volksgericht in December, 1948. Like other high ranking Gestapo officials, he denied the indictment by relying on a technicality to contend that he had not been Department Head as charged. Further, the authors reveal, the state prosecutor behaved more as a defense counsel than a prosecuting attorney. The court thus sentenced him to eighteen months in prison for “illegality” (because of his clandestine membership in the Nazi party before the Anschluss), but released him for time already served in an American compound in Salzburg. The verdict aroused such outrage that in October, 1949 Trenker was tried again, found guilty of “enhanced interrogation,” and sentenced to five years behind bars. A few months later, however, he was released on probation and in 1957 awarded a civil service position.

            Karl Silberbauer was arrested and tried, in part for his role as a Gestapo official in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam SS-Hauptscharführer Silberbauer had participated in the arrest of Anne Frank. But this was unknown to the Austrian prosecutors. The tribunal realized that Silberbauer was not a major war criminal and sentenced him to one year in prison. In 1952 Silberbauer applied for the case to be reopened. In 1954 he was tried and acquitted, but not permitted to continue his career as a Vienna police officer. In 1963 Simon Wiesenthal revealed that Silberbauer had been in charge of the house search in August 1944. Silberbauer was arrested again, but soon released with reference to his previous trial.

            Anton Brödl had been one of the most brutal, violent thugs in the Vienna Gestapo. In 1947 he surrendered to the authorities, pleading guilty to crimes against humanity. But he was never brought to trial, as physicians and psychiatrists recommended that be sent Steinhof psychiatric hospital to determine whether he was mentally sane. The physicians drew different conclusions, but in 1955 agreed that Brödl was not only delusionary paranoid but also a danger to society. Whether Brödl was mentally unbalanced, the authors agree, will never be known. But like other Vienna Gestapo officials, he escaped punishment.

            The trial and punishment of Johann Sanitzer, one of the main officials of the Vienna Gestapo, differed somewhat from that of others brought before the bench for extreme brutality, illegality, and “enhanced interrogation.” Because had studied German history and philosophy, Sanitzer came close to outwitting the prosecution, cleverly pleading guilty to some crimes while denying others. In addition, he had pursued a policy of “reinsurance” so that even Karl Seitz, Lord Mayor of Vienna testified on his behalf. Nevertheless, in 1949 the court sentenced Sanitzer to life in prison. Two months later, Soviet occupying officers removed him from Stein penitentiary and took him to Moscow where he was no doubt tortured, beaten, and brutally treated. Not until the signing of the State Treaty in 1955 was he repatriated to Austria, where he was eventually pardoned. In a sense, Sanitzer was a major Gestapo official who did manage to escape severe punishment and retribution, albeit not at the hands of his own countrymen.

            What is one to make of this remarkable book? The authors themselves provide an answer, writing that “the Vienna Gestapo was the most important instrument of terror in Austria.” (p. 358). With a staff of merely 900 individuals it exercised authority over 3.6 million people, controlling parts of Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, and even border areas of Switzerland. In short, the power of the Vienna Gestapo has been underestimated. While much the information in the book is repetitious relying, for example, on numerous accounts of Austrian resistance movements, it does provide a great many previously unknown details. In addition, it reveals the significant role of informants in apprehending and persecuting opponents, both real and imagined. Arguably, the most revealing and disturbing section of the study focuses on the prosecution of Gestapo officiboals by the judiciary of the Second Austrian Republic. For a great many reasons, including the lack of hard evidence, the authors admit that the judgments were far too lenient. To this may added that those indicted and tried, literally got away with murder.

Evan Burr Bukey