Holocaust Investigation

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Holocaust Investigation

During World War II (19391945), an estimated total of 60 million people, including military personnel, paramilitary personnel, and civilians, had perished, whether in battle, by air raids or shelling of urban areas, village sieges, or in concentration camps. The term Holocaust refers to those ethnic populations who were persecuted and exterminated by the German Nazis in forced labor camps, death marches, inside ghettos, and rural areas. The International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, conducted the investigation and trials of such crimes in the aftermath of World War II. In spite of strict secrecy kept by the Nazi authorities on their genocidal activities, thanks to several anti-Nazi paramilitary groups organized by civilians in the German-occupied territories, collectively known as the Resistance, testimonies of such atrocities were gradually gathered by the Allied Forces. Citizens from France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Norway, Denmark, and other countries formed a network of underground activity, supplying the Allies with intelligence, and smuggling targeted ethnic persons, such as Jews, Gypsies (Roma people), prisoners of war, and political dissidents from Germany and the occupied territories to the United Kingdom, southern France, and the Americas. In the face of the alarming amount of atrocities reported, the governments of the Allied Forces decided in early 1942 to thoroughly investigate and punish those responsible for such crimes. On December 17, 1942, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed a joint declaration acknowledging the mass murder of European Jews.

The Soviet Union issued the Moscow Declaration, on October 30, 1943, "Concerning responsibility of Hitlerites for committed atrocities" and the United Kingdom established, on August 8, 1945, the London Agreement, "Concerning prosecution and punishment of major war criminals of European Axis" (Axis meaning the Alliance of Nazi-Germany with Mussolini, then Dictator of Italy, and the Japanese Empire). Those two documents were combined into a body of laws to regulate the International Military Tribunal (IMT), created by the Allies (the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) in August of 1945. The IMT received jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute individual responsibilities concerning the following offenses: 1) crimes against peace, or "planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing"; 2) war crimes, or "violations of the laws or customs of war . . . shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity"; and 3) crimes against humanity, or "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war . . . or persecution on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of domestic law of the country where perpetrated."

From October 18, 1945, until October 1, 1946, twenty-two Nazi officers were prosecuted on one or more of such charges. Under IMT law, American military tribunals had also tried another 12 high-ranking German Officials at Nuremberg. However, the vast majority of post-war trials concerned lower-rank officials, such as concentration camps commandants, guards, leaders of mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen), police officers, and Nazi physicians who carried out gruesome medical experiments on both political dissidents and other prisoners (Jewish and Gypsy women, men, and children) in the concentration camps. These criminals were prosecuted in different courts and locations of the Allied-occupied territories, such as Soviet-occupied zones of Germany and Austria, British and American courts, and Italy. Additionally, other countries also tried those who committed crimes in their respective territories during Nazi occupation and those who collaborated with Nazi authorities. Poland, for instance, sentenced to death Rudolf Hess, the commandant of Auschwitz extermination camp, in 1947. In post-war decades, Israeli intelligence continued to investigate and hunt Nazi criminals who had fled to other countries under fake identities, such as Adolf Eichmann, who was finally tried in Jerusalem in 1961.

In spite of testimonial evidence and intelligence on Nazi crimes against humanity gathered by the Allies and the Red Cross during the war, nothing prepared the world for the horrors that were disclosed when troops finally reached the concentration camps. In addition to the on-site photographs, movies, physical evidence , and reports by officers of the liberation forces, as well as the individual testimonies of those who survived the Holocaust or the Nazi medical experiments, a great amount of Nazi documentation and material evidence was found in prisons, in the secret police archives, and local police administrative files, which the Nazis did not succeeded in destroying before the Allied invasion.

From the Nazi documentation, such as decrees issued by Hitler to the Gestapo (German secret police organization), ministry memos, and doctrinaire Nazi material, it became clear to Holocaust investigators and prosecutors that concentration camps had served initially as a tool of 1) political terror against Germans, Austrians, Poles, and other political dissidents; 2) as a means of exploiting slave labor; and 3), as places for mass extermination of Jews, Roma people (Gypsies), and others (Serbs, Russians, and Albanians). Soon after Adolf Hitler was nominated as Chancellor of the Third Reich, the Nazi party issued a presidential emergency decree, in February 28, 1933, establishing a so-called "protective custody" that gave the Gestapo unlimited power to arrest people without judicial proceedings.

The Nazi rationale behind ethnic persecution and extermination was twofold. First, according, to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, in a speech to the SS Major Generals at Posen in 1943, the mass extermination of Jews was necessary, although it was a very difficult task, because Jews, due to their religion, were against the Nazi war efforts, acting "in every town as secret saboteurs, agitators and trouble-mongers"; and second, because of the Nazi racial theory about the existence of a pure, "superior" race, the Aryans (Europeans descended from the Saxons), which should be protected from miscegenation with non-Aryan "inferior" races, which were gradually polluting and degrading the Aryan race. Therefore, Jews in particular, and all persons having at least one Jewish grandparent, should be eliminated.

The Roma people, like the Jews, were for centuries victims of discrimination by Europeans in general, due to their traditional customs and nomadic behavior. Nazi killing mobile units were sent to assassinate tens of thousands of Roma in the occupied eastern territories, such as Poland, Hungary, Serbia, and Albania, as well as in the western territories of countries such as France and Italy. Like the Jews, the Roma were also imprisoned in concentration camps, forced to work in factories and mines, tortured, shot, hung, or gassed in the death chambers. An estimated 1 million Roma are thought to have died under Nazi oppression, approximately half of the existing prewar population.

Nazi documents on the number and location of concentration camps all over Europe, such as one signed by the SS General Pohl, compared quantities of prisoners between 1939 and 1942, as follows: "At the beginning of war (Dachau, 1939 = 4,000 prisoners, today, 8,000; Sachsenhausen, 1939 = 6,500, today, 10,000; Buchenwald, 1939 = 5,300, today, 9,000; Mauthausen, 1939 = 1,500, today, 5,500; Flossenburg, 1939 = 1,600, today, 4,700; Ravensbureck, 1939 = 2,500, today 7,500." The report continues, showing a list of new camps built between 1940 and 1942: Auschwitz (Poland), Neuengamme (Germany), Gusen (Austria), Natzweiler (France), Gross-Rosen (Germany), Lublin (Poland), Niederhagen (Germany), Stutthof (near Danzig), Arbeitsdorf (Germany). The War Crimes Branch of the Third U.S. Army (Judge Advocate Section), reported that "Concentration Camp Flossenburg was founded in 1938 as a camp for political prisoners . . . and it was not until April 1940 that the first transport of prisoners was received. . . . Flossenburg was the mother camp and under its direct control and jurisdiction were 47 satellite camps or outer-commandos for male prisoners and 27 camps for female workers . . ." The SS police (Gestapo) established a program of "extermination through work" in these camps, alternating with torture, starvation, and mass execution in gas chambers and incineration in furnaces. A secret motion picture made by the Gestapo of these mass executions was presented as evidence in the IMT court. According to surviving witnesses, when bored, the camp guards also amused themselves by randomly shooting or hanging prisoners.

Physical forensic evidence presented at IMT included an exhibit of three tattooed parchments, identified as human skin by Lieutenant George C. Demas, U.S.N.R., of the United States Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality. The evidence was presented in support of testimonial by a former prisoner at the Buchenwald camp, as follows: "In 1939, all prisoners with tattooing on them were ordered to report to the dispensary . . . but after the tattooed prisoners had been examined, the ones with the best and most artistic specimens were kept in the dispensary, and then killed by injections administered by Karl Beigs, a criminal prisoner. The bodies were then turned over to the pathology department, where the desired pieces of tattooed skin were detached from the bodies and treated. The finished products were turned over to SS Standartenfuehrer Koch's wife, who had them fashioned into lamp-shades and other ornamental household articles. . . ."

The IMT and other investigation committees could never make an accurate estimate of the real numbers of the Holocaust victims. Although Nazis in general kept detailed records, and some concentration camp death lists have been retrieved, it is likely that they only represent the tip of the iceberg. However, due to the huge scale of concentration camps operations and facilities, it was evident they were designed as death factories for mass extermination. Mass graves were also found by the Allied troops in several locations, with hundreds of corpses inside many of them. From some interim reports to Himmler, issued by German officers, it is known that, only from Hungary, "Up to June 27, 1944, 475,000 Jews were deported" to concentration camps in Germany. One report also informs Himmler that between January 11 and 31, 1943, a total of 45,000 Jews were deported from Poland, Berlin, and occupied Dutch territories to Auschwitz: ". . . the figure of 45,000 includes the invalids (old Jews and children). By the use of a practical standard, the screening of the arriving Jews in Auschwitz should yield at least 10,000 to 15,000 people fit for work. . . ." Those "unfit for work" were killed in the gas chambers. Auschwitz and the other camps were constantly receiving prisoners and discarding the unfit for work, and renewing their work forces as the fit quickly became unfit through disease, murder, or starvation.

Long after the confusion of war, work is underway to preserve sites where forensic evidence of the Holocaust might still be found. Most extermination sites were cleaned or deliberately bombed and machinery dismantled by the retreating Germans to attempt to hide the full extent of and motive behind concentration camp atrocities, but some relatively undisturbed sites still remain. In the Birkenau camp in Poland, parts of walls from the gas chamber and crematorium still stand. Preservation groups are consulting forensic scientists for methods to protect traces of chemicals or human remains that are still in the area.

see also Hitler Diaries; War crimes trials; War forensics.