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The Trial of Dr. Horst Fischer

In the course of the trial of the former SS doctor Horst Fischer in East Berlin, testimony was given by 44 witnesses from six countries. The entire trial in March 1966 required only 10 days in court. The remarks of the Supreme Court on the probative force of the witness statements, which were always given priority in case of doubt, are worthy of note. There was “no doubt” about the substance of the statements and about the impartiality of the witnesses, the court said.


In light of the enormous difficulties arising from precisely this point during the consultations of the judges in the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, the East Berlin court’s evaluation of the witness statements is worth mentioning. Here, in contrast to the Frankfurt court, there were no doubts about their conclusiveness. The judges sentenced Horst Fischer on March 25, 1966, to the maximum punishment provided for by the GDR’s criminal code: the death penalty. Clemency appeals were rejected, and the sentence was carried out in summer 1966.


Classical elements of a show trial can be observed in the trial of Fischer: Fischer was extensively tutored by the Ministry for State Security (MfS) before the commencement of proceedings, without having to go through every detail of the trial process. To a significant extent, Fischer participated in shedding light on his crimes. This is at the very least unusual, in comparison with West German trials, where the defendants mostly resorted to defense strategies that ranged from denying the allegations to invoking a perceived need to obey superior orders (Befehlsnotstand). The outcome of the proceedings was settled in advance: The absolute dominance of the MfS is made clear by the suggested punishment, submitted months before the conclusion of the trial; it was de facto much more than a mere recommendation from the investigative agency. The very wording—“The maximum penalty will be applied”[1] —allows no doubt about the predetermination of the sentence. Statements that would have exonerated Fischer, at least to some extent, of one charge or another, without diminishing the overall responsibility for his crimes, were unwanted. Characteristic of the approach taken by the secret police and top legal authorities of the GDR is the handling of the former Auschwitz prisoners Karl Lill and Hermann Langbein. The two perhaps most important witnesses—both clerks for the SS garrison doctor, Dr. Eduard Wirths, Fischer’s boss at Auschwitz—who could have made a material contribution to the characterization of the former concentration camp doctor Fischer—either were not even summoned to East Berlin (Langbein) or played no role in the trial and the conviction (Lill). For political reasons, the stage directors of the trial had deliberately refrained from using witnesses from Israel.


The Fischer trial functioned principally as a way of giving legal support to the SED’s interpretation of German fascism. The proceedings were expected to bestow an aura of moral legitimacy and of adherence to the rule of law. The GDR’s legal involvement with the Nazis’ medical crimes and with the Auschwitz crime scene was already at an end by 1966.

(CD; transl. KL)


MfS, HA IX/10, Hauptmann Bauer, Information über die Vorbereitung und Durchführung des Prozesses gegen den SS-Arzt Dr. Fischer vor dem Obersten Gericht der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 2.3.1966. Die Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (BStU), ZUV 84, HA Bd. 17, Bl. 23.



Dirks, Christian: „Die Verbrechen der anderen“. Auschwitz und der Auschwitz-Prozess der DDR: Das Verfahren gegen den KZ-Arzt Dr. Horst Fischer. Paderborn: Schöningh 2006.

Leide, Henry: NS-Verbrecher und Staatssicherheit. Die geheime Vergangenheitspolitik der DDR. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2005.

[1] Source: MfS, HA IX/10, Captain Bauer, information about the preparation for and conduct of the trial of SS doctor Dr. Fischer before the Supreme Court of the German Democratic Republic, March 2, 1966. The Office of the Federal Commissioner Preserving the Records of the Ministry for State Security of the Former German Democratic Republic (BStU), ZUV 84, HA Vol. 17, p. 23. (Translated by KL)