An Unnamed Chapter

I had the bad luck to get tangled up in this horror.

The crimes did not occur because it was my will.

My purpose was not to kill people.

Blame for mass murder belongs alone to the political leaders.

I am guilty of obedience, my subordination to duty and to wartime conscription, my oath of office and service.

The high command, to which I did not belong, issued the orders.

As I see it, they deserve to be punished for the atrocities committed in following the orders from above.

The subordinates of these superiors are now victims.

I am such a victim, and it should not be forgotten.

— Adolf Eichmann

Although Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of transporting the Jews to concentration camps for their mass extermination, was not arraigned in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial (he was executed after being tried in Israel in 1962), he rightly figures prominently in the opening of Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner’s 1993 documentary Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1964. First, his capture and the difficulties of bringing him to trial are emblematic of the tribulations faced by those who wished to pursue Nazi war criminals nearly two decades after the fall of the fascist regime. Second, Eichmann maintained the defiant stance that he should not be blamed for his actions right up to the moment of his execution, and this demand for total exculpation sets the stage for the defense of the accused in the Frankfurt trial.

Eichmann’s defense is the familiar befehl ist befehl (an order is an order) argument that played such a prominent role in the statements of the Nazi defendants in the Nuremberg trials immediately following World War II. While we may be tempted to dismiss it out of hand as the desperate rationalization of a man facing execution, the argument demands closer scrutiny; its sheer prevalence alone is an indicator that it held some very dear meaning to those who marshaled it forth, undoubtedly realizing that it would find little sympathy. But perhaps they believed that this rationalization would fall on more receptive ears inasmuch as nearly the entire German-speaking population found themselves faced with the difficult task of coming to grips with a past in which they were implicated (if only indirectly) in some of the most abhorrent crimes against humanity ever recorded in history.

The argument is intriguing because it puts its proponent in a double bind. On the one hand, it claims that the individual was not the author of his actions; he was a mere functionary in a corrupt system and he had ceded all autonomy over to the ruling power. Thus, his moral compass became inoperative. In a mad world, sane actions appear to be the epitome of insanity. Under totalitarian regimes, the very matrix of thought typically dubbed “common sense” shifts, giving rise to a perverse geography of moral action. On the other hand, the argument (at least tacitly) seems to acknowledge that it was the individual’s choice to cede his autonomy; it was his choice to stop making choices.

Verdict on Auschwitz seeks to dismantle the notion that Eichmann and the defendants of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial were not culpable because they were mere cogs in a political machine controlled by Hitler by carefully sifting the documentary evidence and the testimonials of the victims. The film overwhelms its viewers with the sheer facticity of Auschwitz. Given the evidence, we cannot accept the disavowal of knowledge. And without the disavowal of knowledge, we cannot accept that these men were blameless.

One of the main goals of this documentary is to elucidate those aspects of the trial that were specific to this particular cultural moment in German history. There are important differences between the natures of the Nuremberg trials immediately following the war and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial held nearly 20 years after the Nazi government collapsed. The Nuremberg trials entered a legal desert and attempted to map out the terrain of international law; the main concern of those involved in the examination of the accused was to avoid any appearance of meting out “victor’s justice”. The Nazi defendants, relatively fresh from the killing fields of war and concentration camps, were identifiable as members of a corrupt order.

Almost two decades later, the Germans who were brought before the court in connection with the attempted annihilation of the Jews had melted into the fabric of postwar society. They were businessmen and medical orderlies; they wanted to appear to be mere citizens of a world doing its best to forget the horrors of the Holocaust. The crimes in which they participated and for which they were now being held to account were many years in the past. They were dressed as businessmen and nonchalantly strolled about the town during breaks in the trial. A casual observer would never have connected these men with the atrocities of Auschwitz.

Some of the most remarkable moments in the film involve interviews with people who knew the defendants in their postwar life. The case of Oswald Kaduk provides an instructive example. When he was arrested in 1959, he was working as an orderly in a nursing home. Everyone called him Papa Kaduk (the same nickname he had among the inmates at Auschwitz). “Mr. Kaduk was real nice to work with”, a fellow orderly assures the viewer, “my colleague was particularly gentle and accommodating with patients”. A patient also has kind things to say about the former S.S. muster officer, assuring us that whenever a patient needed anything, Kaduk came with alacrity. It is difficult to find in these pleasant descriptions the man who was known throughout Auschwitz as a drunkard prone to beating prisoners to death.

Bickel and Wagner cull numerous interviews with people involved in the hearings, footage from the trial itself (cameras were permitted in the courtroom as people assembled in the courtroom prior to testimony), and, most crucially, selections from the extensive audio recordings (roughly 430 hours worth) of the actual trial that the directors discovered in the basement of the State Archives in Frankfurt. The tapes were used for the reference of the court and were supposed to be destroyed following the verdict. Their survival, however, makes it possible for the directors to use them as the foundation for the film. This is not a documentary driven by the visual but rather by the aural. We listen in on testimony; we hear the voices as they catch and betray the emotion of the witnesses reliving the horror of their experiences. While the audio is playing, the directors employ shots of an empty courtroom. The voices fill the room once again but the space remains empty; it is an eloquent gesture that suggests that those voices, once given the chance to speak to the world through the trial, shall never again be reduced to silence.

Interviewees propound numerous theories to explain the willingness of so many S.S. men to go along with Hitler’s extreme solution to the so-called “Jewish question”. Professor Heinz Buchheim, an expert witness in the trial, opines that the Nazis subscribed to a loose ideology termed “Heroic Realism”, wherein they believed in fighting for the mere sake of fighting and attaining a “pure efficiency” in performing one’s duties. It didn’t so much matter what doctrine was being espoused so long as one followed it with scrupulous rigor. Indeed, the documentary seems to agree with this reading of the Nazi character inasmuch as it repeatedly emphasizes that the meticulous nature of their account books (containing careful records of how many people came to Auschwitz and how they met their demise) served as the most damning evidence against them.

Although one is hesitant to say so given the profundity of the subject matter, the documentary is not without its faults. It divides itself into three hour-long segments (Investigation, Trial, and Verdict) but the presentation is so scattered at times that all three sections appear slack in their organization. Indeed, the division itself is somewhat specious. The majority of the third part and a substantial portion of the first really pertain to the trial itself and not their supposed subjects. The directors seem to want to say it all in a single moment and therefore the film loses some of its potential impact. However, the tapes from the trial are so compelling and so moving that they easily mask some of the failings of the production as a whole.

But there are other voices to be heard here as well, voices that we might prefer to ignore. Toward the end of the film, we hear one of Heinrich Himmler’s addresses to the S.S. leadership: “Be honest, decent, loyal and true to those of your own blood. And to no one else! The fate of the Russians and that of the Czechs is completely inconsequential to me . . . Whether other peoples flourish or die of hunger interests me for only one reason: because we need them as slaves for our culture . . . I would also like to be frank with you about a very grave issue. I’m referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the liquidation of the Jewish people . . . Most of you know what a pile of 100 corpses looks like, what a pile of 500 or 1,000 corpses looks like. And I believe, having gone through this and at the same time maintained our decency, has hardened us. Meanwhile it is an unnamed chapter which shall forever remain unspoken.”

It is difficult for us to imagine a social mechanism by which these inhuman acts were performed while the perpetrators believed that they were maintaining their decency. Many people in Germany and throughout the world may have hoped that Himmler would prove right in one respect: that this moment might pass without the need for acknowledgment. But it had to be acknowledged; the deaths of so many people had to be recognized. This documentary goes a long way toward guaranteeing that this “unnamed chapter” shall not remain unspoken; it will reverberate throughout history as a reminder of the depths of depravity into which human beings may fall.

RATING 8 / 10