War Crimes Trials - Vol. II The Belsen Trial. 'The Trial of Josef Kramer and Forty Four Others'

The Trial (Defence - Closing Speeches)

Forty-sixth Day Thursday, 8th November, 1945


Major Winwood, in his address to the Court, did not dispute the fact that Kramer, Klein and Weingartner were, for certain periods, members of the staff at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and therefore, to a certain degree, responsible for the administration of these camps. He submitted that Kraft had never been at Auschwitz, that he had been three days in the Wehrmacht Barracks at Bergen-Belsen, and that he had never been a member of the staff of Belsen Concentration Camp. He wished the Court to take notice that his remarks with regard to the conditions and responsibilities at Auschwitz and Belsen were therefore confined to Kramer, Klein, and Weingartner alone.

It was clear that thousands of people had been killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and that as this was one of the methods of liquidating people of no use to the German Reich, such killings had been carried out on orders emanating from the very highest authority in Germany. The whole concentration camp at Auschwitz, and the labour camps, had been controlled by the Kommandant of Auschwitz. No. 1, a position held, in turn, by Hoess, Liebehenschel and Baer. Hoess, Counsel submitted, had been sent to Auschwitz to deal with the incoming Hungarian transport, and Kramer, on his arrival as Kommandant of Birkenau, was informed that he, Kramer, had nothing to do with the gas chamber or with the incoming transports. Dr. Klein had stated that he had received his orders direct from the senior doctor at Auschwitz No. 1, and Hoessler had said that he obtained his orders direct from Hoess. Dr. Bendel, in his evidence, had told the Court that there was a Political Department at Auschwitz No. 1 responsible for incoming transports and for the Sonderkommandos, who were the people who worked in the gas chamber and actually did the gassing. The downward chain of command, therefore, had been: The Kommandant of Auschwitz, the Political Department and the Sonderkommando - and in this chain the Kommandant of Birkenau did not appear.

Dr. Klein had freely admitted making selections from incoming transports, acting under superior orders, but had never approved, and he had known, of course, that the unfit would go to the gas chamber. Counsel wished to adopt what Colonel Smith had already said with regard to the accused acting under superior orders, and he submitted that if Dr. Klein and all the other doctors had refused to carry out the selections, these selections would still have gone on, until every S.S, man in Germany, had simultaneously refused to execute them. Klein had at least carried out the selections on a medical basis and not as a mere automaton of the liquidating machine, and thereby might have saved several lives.

Kramer had told the Court that although the crematoria were in his area they were not under his command, and when the mutiny of 7th October, 1944, took place and one of the crematoria was set on fire, Dr. Bendel had stated that it had been quelled by a company of S.S. men from Auschwitz No. 1 under the Kommandant of Auschwitz himself, who had taken charge of the revolt and had ordered the executions. On this point, therefore, there was ample evidence that the Political Department, which was partly the Gestapo and partly the Criminal Department, had been the organization responsible within the camp of Auschwitz and, under the supreme Kommandant, the authority for bringing the internees into the camp and for their ultimate disposal. Over that disposal Kramer had had no authority, his real position being comparable with a commanding officer of a transit camp, whose responsibility is purely confined to the administration of people inside a camp until a posting order is received. In Birkenau people were posted to other camps, to labour camps and to the gas chamber. Kramer had been Kommandant of that part of Auschwitz where the selections took place, and he admitted that he often stopped to watch the selections, but he denied categorically that he or his S.S. staff had made the selections. He had been expressly forbidden by Hoess to have anything to do with the gas chamber, and it was obvious that he was a man who was prepared to carry out his orders explicitly.

There was no allegation that Weingartner had been present at selections, or had taken part in any of them. He had lived under the shadow of the death chimneys, and for that there might be a measure of responsibility. But was his position any different from any other German who knew directly or indirectly what was happening to the Jews in all the concentration camps?

With regard to the experiments carried out in Auschwitz by S.S. doctors, nowhere had the name of Dr. Klein been mentioned. Although these experiments appeared to have been cruel and inhuman, some of the most famous doctors had taken part in them, and no knowledge at all was available of what their value to humanity as a whole had been.

At Auschwitz the issue of food, clothing and everything else had been the responsibility of the Kommandant, and as Kramer’s position at Birkenau was analogous to that of a company commander in the British army, the resultant conditions, from that point of view could not be laid at his door. What was his responsibility was what actually had happened inside Birkenau from the point of view of the administration of the camp. The Court had heard from various witnesses and from the accused that beatings took place, and he (Counsel) did not propose to deny that. Grese had stated that she beat people against orders and carried a whip after it had been forbidden by the Kommandant. Kramer had stated that such beatings did not go on, and Counsel asked the Court to consider that this type of beating had been done without Kramer’s knowledge. When considering what happened at the morning roll-calls the Court should take into account the many difficulties there were, and the scarcity of personnel to cope with them. Only three specific allegations had ever been made against these accused. The Court were invited to accept Kramer’s word against the uncorroborated affidavit of Rosenthal, in which it was alleged that Kramer had set dogs on and machine-gunned people around a ditch. Glinowieski had spoken of receiving twenty-five strokes from Kramer in autumn, 1943, but it had been pointed out that Kramer was not at Auschwitz at that time. Although dates did not mean very much to these internees, Glinowieski had stood by his story. Again, with regard to the statement by Ilona Stein and Hammermasch, who alleged that Kramer beat people at selections, there was the denial by that accused.

Glinowieski accused Weingartner of having beaten his brother to death, although he admitted that he had not actually seen it, and there was no direct evidence to connect Weingartner with such a happening. Counsel submitted that there was a reasonable doubt that it was in fact Weingartner who was responsible for this beating. Sunschein and Lothe had accused Weingartner of beating prisoners, depriving them of extra food, setting dogs on them and making them work whilst standing in water, when they were engaged in a working Kommando on very unpleasant irrigation work at the river. Weingartner, in answer to the allegations, had stated that the depriving of the workers of their extra food had been at his discretion, and he had only deprived the people who had not earned it. It seemed to have been Weingartner’s misfortune both at Auschwitz and Belsen to have been surrounded by a monstrous regiment of women. It was not a very enviable task to have 30 S.S. men acting as guards whilst all the actual looking after of a thousand women was left to him. The difficulties under which Weingartner had been placed must be remembered when considering the allegations of Sunschein and deciding whether there had been real ill-treatment.

The case of Kraft was completely different, and was contained in one affidavit of Regina Bialek. Speaking quite clearly of Auschwitz, the words of this affidavit read: "On another day in the summer of 1943 I saw, from about 40 metres away, George Kraft (photograph 7-5) catch a man who was also speaking to a woman. Kraft battered the man’s face and head with a stick so that his head was gashed and blood poured from his mouth and ears. In my opinion the man must have died, since no one could have survived such injuries. I later saw his body taken away to the male quarters by other prisoners." This affidavit, standing completely alone, brought Kraft into Auschwitz, indirectly connected him with the mass killing of four million people, and accused him of an individual murder of a particularly crude and bestial kind, the time being vaguely stated as the summer of 1943. The photograph before the Court was no doubt a very reasonable likeness, but in the summer of 1943 Kraft was in Rumania, in Vienna in July, in Buchenwald, and in Dora, where he stayed until January, 1945. Both the witness Hermann and the accused Klippel had confirmed this, and Kraft himself has said that he had never been at Auschwitz. Counsel invited the Court to agree that in view of the oral evidence this affidavit of Bialek was completely without weight.

It was alleged by the Prosecution that the thousands of people who died at Belsen did so by criminal neglect, deliberate starvation and ill-treatment, and that Kramer was primarily responsible. He (Counsel) submitted that there was insufficient evidence to warrant the Court finding that there was any deliberate attempt on the part of Kramer, or his staff, to starve or ill-treat the internees who were in their charge. It might be alleged that Kramer and his staff, by carrying out the orders from higher German authorities and by running Belsen camp at all, had become a party to a scheme for making Belsen deliberately a death-trap of starvation. Kramer had said that he had been told, when he went to Oranienburg, that Belsen was to be a camp for sick people and would contain all the sick prisoners from North and North-West Germany, and that the total was to be about 18000. When the sick people had recovered they were to be built up again into working Kommandos and sent back to work, and be had been informed that at Belsen he would also find a part of the camp occupied by Jews for exchange. At Auschwitz people were selected as fit or unfit for work, and the unfit were sent to die in the gas chamber. In North-West Germany people were selected as fit or unfit for work, and the unfit were sent to die at Belsen. There was no evidence as to what had been in the minds of people like Gruppenführer Pohl or Glücks, and the idea might have been to build up new working parties to cope with the shortage of workmen. By the time the transports of sick had really begun to arrive at Belsen it had been clear that the German armies were doomed, and from then onwards it seemed unlikely that the German authorities had done much for mere foreign internees there. Kramer had written to Glücks stating that he realised that the latter had greater difficulties of his own to overcome, but that any improvement in the condition of his own detainees was quite out of the question under the present circumstances. There was no evidence that Kramer in any way acted in concert with the officials at Oranienburg in any plan of deliberate starvation, and he was quite obviously trying to get people fit for work as far as possible.

Kramer had arrived at Belsen on 1st December, 1944, there were 15000 internees, about half of whom were sick, and on 15th April, 1945, there were 41000 prisoners, of whom the vast majority were sick. This large increase had come about by the influx of transports from other concentration camps, which had poured into Belsen after appalling journeys on which large numbers had died, and those remaining alive had been so weak that they had to be helped at each step. What did these half-dead people find when they got to Belsen? They found a camp already overcrowded, diseases rampant - especially typhus - food insufficient, even if they received the maximum under the German ration scale. Belsen was an example of what was happening to Germany as a whole country - order changing into disorder, disorder into chaos. Kramer’s first duty was to keep his headquarters informed of the position and find out what they were going to do about it. They had heard from him that in January Dr. Lolling, the senior medical officer in the whole concentration camp service, had inspected the camp and must have realised what the future was going to be for the transports which continued to be sent there; but nothing had come of this visit, and in February a transport had brought typhus. Kramer had been provided with very few medical or hospital facilities, and all he could do was to close the camp to prevent people from coming in. He had reported his action to Berlin and had been told that he had to open it again and that prisoners were to go to Belsen, typhus or no typhus. On 1st March, realizing that nothing was going to be done, he had written a dispatch to his superior officer, Glücks, telling him what the present position was on that date, and prophesying a catastrophe. The Prosecution had suggested that this letter had been planted by Kramer to cover himself, but Counsel asked the Court to accept that letter and also the affidavit of Volkenrath, who had stated that Kramer had informed her that he had made such a report. When Pohl had gone to Belsen he had promised to stop transports coming in and to deal with the removal of the exchange Jews. The second promise had been fulfilled but the transports had still come rolling in. Dr. Klein had stated as his opinion that the people from Berlin were wholly responsible for the conditions, because they had sent thousands and thousands of people into the camp without providing anything for their needs. This had been confirmed by Dr. Leo, an unbiased witness.

With regard to food, there had been a lot of evidence to the fact that internees only got half a litre of turnip soup a day, and that some witnesses had had neither food nor water for some five days. It was clear that this referred to the last period immediately prior to the date of liberation. Unterscharführer Müller had produced the indents and the strength returns, and there was evidence that firms were despatching food to Belsen regularly. But it was to be observed that the indents were based on the average strength of the month preceding, and it followed that the large and sudden increases in numbers had made it almost impossible to cope with the situation, until from 8th April onwards there were only 400 litres of soup for 1200 people. From the beginning of April food had been scarce in Germany as a whole, and chaos had started. Inside Belsen Camp there had been chaos too. Müller had issued food to the cooks, who had cooked it and issued it to the internees, but once it had left the cookhouse it was the responsibility of people other than the S.S. to distribute it. It had been stated that the food depended on the efforts of the Lagerältesten, that Kapos deprived women of their proper share and kept it for themselves, that prisoners in food stores bartered with the Kapos, that Kommandos stole potatoes, and that restraint had to be used to prevent people getting a second helping before others had got their first. This all pointed to the fact that the method of distribution had been bad, and of course a certain amount of responsibility did rest with the S.S. staff. But what other methods would have been successful with the available food at that time, and with groups of people clamouring around for food which did not exist? The cookhouses at Belsen had worked under great difficulties right up to the date when the British had arrived, and the witness Sunschein had stated that girls used to work there for 18 hours a day. That did show that something had been done under the circumstances at Belsen.

Despite impressions to the contrary, there had been water in Belsen from the main supply up to 12th or 13th April, and after the electricity had finally gone off a hand pump was working near Cookhouse No. 3 whilst the large concrete ponds would have provided, if kept clean, some supply of drinking water, for the internees. It was not fair to suggest that all the filth in these concrete ponds had been put there by the S.S. Beds and blankets had been in very short supply, the former practically nonexistent, and Kramer had specifically mentioned this in his report on 1st March. Beds did arrive, but they were only a drop in the ocean and prisoners told to bring their own blankets had not, in many cases, done so. Sanitation had been, of course, quite inadequate, but Kramer had told the Court that he had given orders for ditches to be dug by each block, and things would have been very much better if these orders had been properly carried out.

It had been suggested that it was only when Kramer knew the British were coming that he had tried to dispose of the bodies. At the beginning, use had been made of 16 small crematorium, but it was impossible for this to cope and large funeral pyres had been made. These, Dr. Leo had stated in evidence, were eventually forbidden by the Forestry Commission, and it had to be remembered that people were dying at a very high rate every day, and it was not until about 5th April that internees arrived who were capable of digging mass graves and burying the bodies.

It had been stated that Appelle had only begun at Belsen when Kramer had arrived, but these Appelle were a part of concentration camp life and were the only way of making out a strength return for rations, and for the returns which had to be sent to Oranienburg. Grese and Ehlert had stated that these Appelle took place only twice a week, the witness Singer had said that there was a regulation in the camp later on that sick people were not allowed to attend the Appelle outside their blocks. This was confirmed by Koper, Polanski, and some of the other Polish accused. There had been evidence relating to many concentration camps in Germany, and the Court had been told that in these concentration camps beatings took place. Nobody was going to deny that there were beatings at Belsen, but it must be borne in mind that a certain amount of force was necessary to restrain the internees when food became insufficient, and that, to a certain extent, the language of a concentration camp is blows.

The learned Prosecutor had asked Kramer why, he had not appealed to the general of the Wehrmacht Barracks, but was it not for the general himself to take the first step, as he, after all, was the senior officer on the spot? But Kramer had, in fact, gone to see the general after his camp had been completely overcrowded and he had received notice that 30000 more people were coming. Without in any way wishing to belittle the efforts made by the accused, Hoessler, when he had gone to Bergen-Belsen, Counsel submitted that it was due to the groundwork of Kramer that the 15000 prisoners had not found themselves hurled into the chaos of Belsen, but had lived in comparative comfort and decency in the barracks.

All the specific allegations of ill-treatment by Kramer have been denied by him, except for his admission that he had slapped a Russian girl who had been brought back after attempting to escape. Counsel asked the Court to consider the story of Bimko and Hammermasch with regard to the killing of the four Russians as a pure invention by two witnesses who had appeared in quick succession in the court for the sole purpose of having a go at Kramer, their former Kommandant, and that further it was for this reason that these two witnesses had accused him of taking an active part in the selections at Auschwitz.

Dr. Klein had been at Belsen, but he had been the assistant of Dr Horstmann and had been under his orders. He had stated that he had kept on asking Horstmann to send reports to Berlin, complaining of the state of affairs, because he realised what the state of chaos was; but, being under the orders of a senior doctor, what could he do? He had been specifically allocated the task of looking after the S.S. troops and personnel, and it was only three days before the British came that he did be come, in fact, the only medical officer at Belsen Concentration Camp. Dr. Leo had told what Dr. Klein had succeeded in doing in the last three days, and although it might be said that he did what he could because he knew the British were coming, it must be remembered that it was the first time that he had been able to do anything on his own as the chief medical officer.

Weingartner had admitted beating, and had had the honesty to admit that the weapon which he used was a piece of rubber hose. On the occasion when the personnel in the cookhouse had been changed round, and there were crowds of candidates for the positions, Sunschein had been the Kapo responsible for keeping order, and as order was not kept by her, Weingartner, in a fit of impatience, had hit her. In the circumstances that was reasonable, and Counsel suggested that the extent of the beating and injuries caused had been grossly exaggerated by the witness.

Sompolinski had recognised Kraft as being in the stores at Belsen, had said that he shot people when dragging bodies to the graves, and that he had seen him in Camp No. 1 seven days before the British arrived, and he had made the curious remark that he (Kraft) was always trying to do it to everybody. Counsel submitted that this witness had come to court and made this wild accusation against Kraft, and a further wild accusation against Kramer, without any regard for the truth. There was evidence that Kraft did not arrive at Belsen until the night of the 11th/12th April. The accused, Klippel, had said that he met Kraft at the aerodrome on the night 10th/11th April, and both he and the witness Kltscho had stated that they slept in the same room as Kraft in the Wehrmacht Barracks until 16th April. The accused, Schmitz, had told the Court that because of typhus the ordinary S.S. men could not go from Camp No. 2 to Camp No. 1, and apart from Sompolinski there was no evidence that Kraft ever did set foot in Camp No. 1. Counsel asked the Court to accept Kraft’s story in toto and to reject Sompolinski’s description of Camp No. 2, which could not conceivably be considered a true description. Kraft, for the three days he was in the Wehrmacht Barracks, had been a member of Dora Concentration Camp in transit, or possibly an inmate of the Wehrmacht Barracks under the command of Colonel Harries, who had made himself responsible for the administration. But if Camp No. 2 was considered to be under Kramer, then it must be considered as completely separate, with its own administration under Hoessler, and Brenneis, and members of the staff could not be considered as members of Kramer’s concentration camp.

There had been two main types of evidence presented to the Court which affected Counsel’ s accused. The first was the affidavit evidence, and the Court should consider an uncorroborated affidavit, such as of Rosenthal, with the very greatest care. Second, there was the oral evidence which came, to a large extent, from witnesses who were formerly victims of the S.S. both at Auschwitz and Belsen, and who naturally hated them. They had suffered terrible things and their minds might well be clouded with prejudice and coloured by the fact that the tables had now been turned. As many of the events had taken place a long time ago, it was possible that several of these events had been telescoped to make one event, which sounded far worse that it ever had been. The Court should be very careful in considering this evidence not to confuse fact with fantasy. All four of the accused were members of the S.S., and they had heard from the accused Schmitz the common view of the ordinary soldier with regard to them, and also, from Frau Schreirer, that the S.S. were the élite of the German Armed Forces. When judging the four men and when considering the evidence, Counsel respectfully asked that the Court would remember that Kraft and Weingartner wore the S.S. uniform under compulsion, and that Kramer and Klein did so from conviction.

The Trial (Defence - Closing Speeches)