1945-1955: The Austrian People’s Courts
1956-present: Hundreds of prosecutorial examinations – but almost no completed cases
The activity of the Austrian People’s Court (1945-1955) has gained international stature, in no small measure thanks to the work of the ARAPJ at the DOEW. Awareness of the posture of Austrian justice toward Nazi crimes since the end of the jurisdiction of the People’s Court remains only fragmentary. Therefore the ARAPJ began a project 4 years ago to create a registry of investigations following the closing of the People’s Court; i.e., following 1955. The registry is intended to give information about proceedings begun against suspects by Austrian justice, and where the files are located. This serves to determine the intensity of the efforts of prosecutors and judges – markedly varied over the course of decades – to investigate and punish Nazi crimes. In addition, it serves to widen the historical source base: The main task of the projects is to evaluate to what extent actual Austrian investigation of Nazi crimes are to be expected in the new files since the majority consist of merely of copies of German prosecutorial investigations.
Although the few legal proceedings of the 1960s and early ‘70s were criticized in the press and were partly the subject of scientific publications thereafter, the distillation of those 35 proceedings for the period following 1955, where charges were brought, nevertheless gives an incomplete picture of the judicial confrontation of Nazi crimes in Austria. In regard to all the preliminary prosecutorial surveys and forensic examinations which did not result in charges being brought, no knowledge of their magnitude was known until recently. The registries set up by the interior and justice ministries since the 1960s suggested that hundreds of other proceedings were discontinued, often after years of intensive investigation. The coincidental discovery of the Majdanek proceedings of 1963-1973 in Graz demonstrated that such proceedings can greatly broaden knowledge of Nazi crimes and their (non-) punishment. This is exemplified by the ARAPJ publication of 2011, “Justice and the Concentration Camp Lublin-Majdanek. Prosecution and Justice Denied: Poland, Germany, and Austria Compared” (Das KZ Lublin-Majdanek und die Justiz. Strafverfolgung und verweigerte Gerechtigkeit: Polen, Deutschland und Österreich im Vergleich), which in part grew out of the investigational proceedings in Graz.
One preliminary result of the project is already clear: From 1956 to 2010, some 500 such investigations took place, the majority at the Vienna and Graz court locations. However, since in not even 10 percent of the cases were charges brought, the public was virtually unaware of these investigations. Nearly half of these investigations were begun in the years 1956-1957. Many represented the continuation of incomplete or re-opened cases for the time of the People’s Court.
Work on the registry began in 2011, financed at first exclusively by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Then starting in 2014 the Republic of Austria shared in the costs by virtue of its Future Fund project financing. Based on the collection of all the proceedings since 1956 of suspected Nazi crimes, the files from the proceedings – as far as legal restrictions allow – are also being digitized. The USHMM and the memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem are bearing the costs here. The collaboration and ongoing information exchange between the workers at the respective state archives and the file collections of the courts have proven helpful. In 2017 a tabular overview will be made available on the internet.
The major focus of the studies at Vienna were crimes at the complex Mauthausen, Auschwitz, and the crimes of the Austrian members of the SS in the district of Krakow, including the concentration camp Plaszow. While it is the case that investigation of Austrian members of the Department of the Commander of the Security Police and of the Security Service Minsk took place, the file itself consists primarily of copies of German proceedings against the leader of the department, Georg Heuser, who in Koblenz in 1962 was sentenced to life imprisonment on 11,000 counts of murder.
Noteworthy also is the beginning of criminal proceedings in the mid-1960s and early 1970s against a total 7 accused, sentenced in absentia to death or multiyear imprisonment by French courts martial. The files contain extensive investigation documents of the French prosecution authorities. Nevertheless the proceedings were suspended after a short time.
The attempt to reopen criminal proceedings in the case of the pediatric department, Spiegelgrund, collapsed after the discontinuation of the trial of Heinrich Gross in 2000. This last attempt by Austrian justice to hold accountable the physician responsible for the murder of countless children in the Nazi euthanasia program also gained international attention. But the experienced psychiatrist, Dr. Gross, had himself declared demented and thereby incompetent to trial. As a result, all the other investigations of physicians at the institution, the former hospital Am Steinhof, were aborted. By the end of the 1990s the majority were either deceased or no longer capable of interrogation.
A legal assistance request to the Austrian Federal Ministry of Justice in 2007 by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej), Lublin District, enabled the opening of a prosecution against Erna Wallisch, the former guard at concentration camp Majdanek. This was the result of the discovery of previously unknown testimony by survivor of the camp. However the death of the accused on February 16, 2008 forced the closure of this case as well.
The gathering work at Graz was intense because of a large backup of files, but by the end of 2015, was largely completed. Altogether, some 170 proceedings were conducted following the expiration of the People’s Court, of which only approximately one quarter were from the years 1956/57 in contrast to Vienna.
Likewise in Graz, the beginning dealt with the continuation of cases from the period of the People’s Court. Justice officials further searched for escaped suspects, in some cases into the 1990s. Included were cases of crimes at the end of the war such as those in the districts of Weiz and Hartberg against resistance fighters, deserters, and presumed opponents of the dying regime; and the murder of Hungarian-Jewish forced laborers in the building of the “southeast wall” at the town of Strem on the Hungarian border.
In the 1960s prosecutors in Graz worked on cases of single and mass murder by members of Einsatzgruppe A in Lithuania as well as Nazi crimes in Theresienstadt. In each case one accused faced trial – Franz Murer, territorial commissar of Vilna, and Stefan Rojko, former guard at the Gestapo prison, Kleine Festung, at Theresienstadt. The details of the case against Franz Murer present the most comprehensive file of Graz justice regarding Holocaust crimes. Another central component of the judicial examinations is the murders in the Radom district of the “General Government” of the occupied Polish territories by members of the Security Police and Gendarmerie. These proceedings, initially begun in Innsbruck, brought to over 100 the number of persons accused in the course of the investigations. The legal investigation of operations in the concentration and death camp Lublin-Majdanek engaged the overburdened and understaffed Graz prosecutor’s office for over a decade, and ended in October 1972 with no further proceedings against the accused. The same applied to investigational proceedings against former members of the First SS Infantry Brigade from Austria in connection with their participation in mass murder in White Russia, specifically in the territory of the Pinsk Marshes. In the course of these proceedings, former Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) chairman and Member of Parliament, Friedrich Peter was interrogated.
As in Vienna, the number of cases brought by the Graz Court sank to virtually zero by the beginning of the 1970s. By November 1977 the proceedings against the former commander of the Riga ghetto, Eduard Roschmann were also suspended. After he succeeded in escaping from British custody, he built a new identity in Argentina. An extradition request by the Hamburg prosecutor’s office led to his flight to Paraguay. He died at the end of July 1977 in a hospital in the capital Asuncion without ever having answered for his participation in mass murder and deportation. After his death the prosecutor’s office in Graz also suspended its proceedings against him.
In 1992 preliminary legal investigation of the physician Egon Sabukoschek on suspicion of participation in war crimes in Belgrade constituted the tentative conclusion of work at Graz. The case was closed on February 13, 1995 with the death of the accused. In 2010 the Graz prosecutor’s office led legal hearings based on skeletal remains on the grounds of the Belgian barracks in Graz-Wetzelsdorf. The lack of still-living suspects however also ended these proceedings.
All the above-mentioned copies of excerpts from the trials of Nazi crimes, along with the trial files of the ARAPJ are largely available online at the DOEW. The library at the DOEW holds the largest collection of books and essays on the theme of denazification and postwar trials of all Austrian professional libraries.