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University of Tennessee Press
Eyewitness to Genocide: The Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials, 1955-1966

Eyewitness to Genocide: The Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials, 1955-1966

by Michael Bryant


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781621900498
Publisher: University of Tennessee Press
Publication date: 05/15/2014
Series: Legacies of War Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael S. Bryant is associate professor of legal studies at Bryant University. He is the
author of Confronting the “Good Death”: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945–1953.

Table of Contents

Foreword G. Kurt Piehler ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1 A Subject for Jurisprudence: From the Ulm Einsatzgruppen Trial to the Creation of the Ludwigsburg Central Office, 1956-1960 23

2 The Queen of the Dead: The Investigation and Trial of the Belzec Death Camp 35

3 Who Killed the Jews? The Treblinka Investigation and Trial 71

4 Murdering Star: The Sobibor Investigation and Trial 125

5 Handy-Dandy Justice: Nazi Crimes and the Self-Absolution of the West German Judiciary 191

Conclusion 223

Appendices 229

Chronology 245

Notes 249

Glossary 291

Bibliography 293

Index 303

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