Displaying justice : Nazis on trial in postwar Germany / by Devin O. Pendas.
To argue that trials cannot adequately grasp historical reality, that the judge makes a poor historian, is by now hardly a shocking thesis. It is surprising, though, how rarely this claim has been investigated in any great detail. Particularly with regard to the Holocaust trials conducted in German courts (as opposed to Nuremberg) after World War II, the absence of any concrete analyses is particularly glaring. My dissertation seeks to remedy this situation. What are the limits and possibilities of the law for addressing a complex historical problem like Nazism and the Holocaust? What, in short, is the relationship between truth and justice in the wake of mass atrocity and genocide? My dissertation is a detailed investigation of the largest and most comprehensive German Nazi trial, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial (1963–1965). I argue that the basic legal structures of German law constrained and channeled the activities of the participants in the Auschwitz Trial. In other words, although the various trial actors came to the trial with diverse agendas and resources, they were all forced to respond to and operate within the boundaries of the law. I further argue that the Auschwitz Trial thus responded to and reflected certain problematic aspects of German law, most crucially the assumption of a causal nexus between subjective motivation and individual action. This assumption is deeply embedded in German criminal law, in the way it defines murder, distinguishes perpetrators from accomplices and understands the meaning of guilt. This assumption of an identity between motives and causes, while useful in ordinary criminal cases, distorts the complex social reality of the Holocaust. In particular, it cannot grasp the way that Holocaust perpetrators were motivationally interchangeable, that persons acting from different motives produced identical genocidal results. This was reflected in the trial, for example, in that perpetrators of torture were generally more severely punished than were accomplices to genocide. As a result the historical understanding of the German past that emerged from the Auschwitz Trial was inadequate to the historical reality of the German past.
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