Two guests from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum spoke to West Chester University students on Thursday, November 13, regarding a unique perspective into the prosecution of Nazi war crimes.Drs. Jürgen Matthus and Patricia Heberer, the authors of the recently published “Atrocities on Trial” shared with the audience a few rarely studied instances of Nazi criminals being put on trial.
Matthus began the lecture by revealing that there are, “No scarcity of sources when researching the Holocaust.” An unlikely source, in which Matthus used for his research, were the files of Nazi S.S. Officers (an elite police force and Hitler’s personal bodyguards) and the German court system during World War II.
Matthus’ lecture focused on the German court system from 1941 until 1945. The audience was introduced to instances in which Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the S.S., put his own officers on trial. Matthus said these court proceedings were taken on in order to solve, “internal deficiencies within the S.S.” According to Matthus, the Nazi officials did not want the officers to, “overstep boundaries,” and sought to define, “legitimate and illegitimate behavior when committing atrocities.” Matthus questioned the German court’s tactics and rhetorically asked if genocide could be legitimized.
To support his research, Matthus cited the example of Max Tubner, an officer of the S.S. Tubner was especially brutal in his tactics, murdering thousands in a span of weeks and even documenting his brutality with photographs. Tubner went through the internal court system, and was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for his, “shameless and revolting,” actions according to the court judges. The court system concluded that the S.S. Officers needed orders and authority in order to commit the murder of Jews.
Concluding his lecture, Matthus introduced some lessons and insights that can be drawn from the events, as well as his research. According to Matthus, these events, “exemplified the perverted sense of law and order,” that the Germans believed in during this time period. He also asserted that the Nazis believed that, “…the murdering of Jews was not a criminal offense.” Matthus drew this conclusion from the fact that many officers were able to escape punishment for the severe actions by stating that they had simply followed orders.
Next to speak was Dr. Patricia Heberer, who presented another side of a country’s failure to take responsibility for Nazi crimes. Her lecture focused on the inability of Austria to take responsibility for the events that took place during World War II. Heberer described this time period as Austria’s, “era of amnesty for amnesia.”
The lecture focused on a man named Josef Wendl, a man who committed thousands of murders during the years of World War II. Heberer described how Wendl drove mobile killing buses in which the exhaust system would be directly leaked into a sealed chamber in the back where upwards of 50 people would be held. Heberer continued to prove her point by explaining how Wendl was never adequately punished and was not formally arrested until 1970. Even then, Heberer stated, Wendl was never convicted.
The lecture mostly dealt with how Wendl was never appropriately dealt with and for the most part went unpunished. Heberer focused on Austria’s reluctance to deal with atrocities that occurred within its borders. She presented research in which Austria was far behind the curve for putting Nazi criminals on trial. Heberer proved this with research that stated Austria has only had 75 trials of Nazi criminals since 1955.
Heberer concluded her lecture by stating that since the onset of World War II, Austria, “turned a blind eye to murder.”
Concluding the lecture, Matthus and Heberer brought their research to a head. Conclusions were drawn that, “There is a level of guilt that other countries are still grappling with.”
A question was posed to the lecturers if they believed justice was served or if it even could be served.
Matthus responded simply by stating, “There was no justice applied post-World War II.” In response to this question, Matthus also drew parallels to recent events in Darfur. Matthus spoke of how justice is hard to measure, if not impossible to attain, in situations where so many lives are affected in negative ways. The lecture and the evidence presented by Matthus and Heberer showed the audience how justice is never guaranteed and the world is still dealing with issues and mistakes that should have been learned from.
Jordan Demain fourth-year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at JD653602@wcupa.edu.