Research & Teaching

Victim witnesses in the Auschwitz trials 1950–1980

Researcher: Dr. Katharina Stengel

The contemporary history research project funded by the German Research Foundation DFG since 2015 is being conducted in cooperation with the Dubnow Institute, Leipzig. The research focuses on the many former concentration camp prisoners and Holocaust survivors who testified as witnesses in the post-war period in German investigation and criminal proceedings against the perpetrators. Their reports frequently constituted the basis for the charge and served as evidence; however little is known to date about the specific circumstances of their testimony. Two monographic studies, based on the trials relating to Sobibor extermination camp and Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, systematically examine the participation of former Nazi victims in subsequent prosecution of Nazi mass crimes.

The partial project conducted by the Fritz Bauer Institute deals with victim-witnesses in the Auschwitz trials. It focuses on the reconstruction of the conditions and circumstances of these testimonies – from the search, selection and questioning of witnesses through to the criminal justice credibility criteria and the significance of their testimonies for legal reconstruction of the actual crimes and the judgments. It analyses the forms of communication between the lawyers and the victims of the Nazi defendants and explores the tension between the criminal testimony conception and the possibilities of proving extermination. The witnesses are considered as a group of individuals who had their own motives for involvement in the trials, in which they had to play a role that corresponded to their concerns only to a very limited extent. The history of the legal prosecution of Nazi crimes as a history of conflict is thus enriched by including material aspects that have been ignored to date. It also offers critical examination, still outstanding for the most part, of the testimonies delivered by Nazi victims in the criminal proceedings, which should pave the way for future research to use sources largely disregarded until now.