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Hermann Langbein (1912–1995)

Hermann Langbein, born in Vienna in 1912, worked after high school graduation as an actor at the Deutsches Volkstheater until 1933. In 1933, he joined the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ), which was banned the following year. After the union (Anschluss) of Austria and Germany in 1938, he fled to France and by April of that year was fighting in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. After the republic’s defeat, he fled with many other fighters in the International Brigades to southern France, where he was interned in various camps from February 1939 onward, until he was handed over, along with other Austrian prisoners, to the German authorities in April 1941. The “repatriates” were placed in the Dachau concentration camp, where Langbein spent most of his time working as a sickbay clerk. In the summer of 1942, he was “transferred” to Auschwitz, where he first worked in the office of the Auschwitz main camp and then as the clerk of the garrison physician, SS-Standortarzt Dr. Eduard Wirths. His position of trust enabled him to persuade Wirths to stop killing sick prisoners with phenol injections and improve the medical treatment in the prisoner infirmary. In 1943, he and others founded the Kampfgruppe Auschwitz, a resistance organization with members of various nationalities. In August 1944, he was moved to a subcamp of Neuengamme, and later he was sent to other camps, until he managed to escape from an evacuation transport in April 1945. In Hanover, he wrote his first account of Auschwitz, which he gave to the British.


Back in Vienna, Hermann Langbein worked as a full-time functionary of the KPÖ, setting up party schools, and was elected to the party’s Central Committee. In 1947, in reaction to the apparent lack of interest in the experiences of the concentration camp survivors, he began to write a book, Die Stärkeren. Ein Bericht aus Auschwitz und anderen Konzentrationslagern (The Stronger Ones: A Report from Auschwitz and Other Concentration Camps), which was published by the Communist Party’s publishing house in 1949. Starting in 1951, Langbein increasingly came into conflict with the KPÖ leadership, was not reelected to the Central Committee, and was “transferred for disciplinary reasons,” along with his wife, Loisi, and his little daughter, to Budapest in 1953. There he worked for German-language programs of the Hungarian radio broadcasting service. After his return in 1954, he joined other former prisoners in founding the International Auschwitz Committee (IAC), and became its general secretary. In 1955, he also became secretary of the Austrian KZ-Verband (Concentration Camp Association). In the following years, he was responsible for numerous activities of the IAC, which regarded itself as a mouthpiece for Auschwitz survivors and victims. He fought for compensation payments from industrial firms, including I.G. Farben, that had profited from the forced labor of Auschwitz prisoners; he was involved, with some success, in the legal prosecution of SS members in West Germany and Austria; and he sought to bring the crimes of the National Socialists, particularly in Auschwitz, into the public eye.


The distance between Langbein and the KPÖ became impossible to bridge after the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. After his public protest against the execution of Imre Nagy, the former prime minister of Hungary, he was expelled from the party in 1958. His expulsion from the party was followed after 1959/60 by increasingly violent attacks on Langbein within the Auschwitz Committee. As he was an “enemy of the party,” most member associations from the Eastern bloc found him no longer acceptable. In 1960, he first lost his position as general secretary, and then, in 1961, he was excluded from the management. At first, Hermann Langbein continued the preparations for the Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt am Main—especially the search for evidence and for former prisoners who could serve as witnesses—in his capacity as secretary of the Austrian Auschwitz Concentration Camp Association, but then he lost this position as well. Until the founding of the Comité International des Camps in 1963 and his selection as its secretary, he acted as a private individual.


In 1962, Hermann Langbein, along with H. G. Adler and Ella Lingens, published the anthology Auschwitz. Zeugnisse und Berichte (Auschwitz: Testimonies and Reports), and the following year saw the appearance of his book Im Namen des deutschen Volkes. Zwischenbilanz der Prozesse wegen Nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen (In the Name of the German People: Interim Balance Sheet for the Trials of National Socialist Crimes). He observed and transcribed the first Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial almost continuously; in 1965, his two-volume documentation, Der Auschwitz-Prozess (The Auschwitz Trial), was published. In 1967, he was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In the following decades, Langbein was active primarily as a writer and commentator on public affairs, and he became involved in educational work at universities and schools. His most significant publications include Menschen in Auschwitz (published in English as People in Auschwitz), which appeared in 1972. In Austria, he took part in creating the first contemporary-witness program for schools, and almost to the end of his life he also continued to speak at numerous schools and educational institutions in the FRG. He remained an active participant in the debates regarding the design of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and was appointed to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), where he presented proposals for a new concept for the museum. Hermann Langbein died in Vienna in 1995, at the age of 83.

(KS; transl. KL)


Fritz Bauer Institute, ed.: Das 51. Jahr... Zum Gedenken an Hermann Langbein. Materialien des Fritz Bauer Instituts 15. Frankfurt am Main: Fritz Bauer Institute, 1996.

Kogon, Eugen / Langbein, Hermann / Rückerl, Adalbert, eds.: Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas. Editor’s notes and foreword to the English-language edition by Pierre Serge Choumoff. New Haven/London: Yale UP, 1993.

Langbein, Hermann: Die Stärkeren. Ein Bericht aus Auschwitz und anderen Konzentrationslagern. Vienna: Stern, 1949.

Langbein, Hermann / Adler, H.G. / Lingens-Reiner, Ella, eds.: Auschwitz. Zeugnisse und Berichte. Frankfurt am Main: EVA, 1962.

Langbein, Hermann: Im Namen des deutschen Volkes. Zwischenbilanz der Prozesse wegen nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen. Vienna: Europa, 1963.

Langbein, Hermann: Der Auschwitz-Prozeß. Eine Dokumentation. 2 Vols. Frankfurt am Main: EVA, 1965.

Langbein, Hermann: Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1938–1945. London: Constable, 1994.

Langbein, Hermann: People in Auschwitz. Chapel Hill, NC/London: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Pelinka, Anton / Weinzierl, Erika, eds.: Hermann Langbein – Zum 80. Geburtstag. Festschrift. Vienna: Braumüller, 1993. [contains: Anton Pelinka: “Ein Gespräch mit Hermann Langbein,” pp. 45–113.]

Robusch, Kerstin: “‚Die Antwort darauf ist Menschlichkeit.‘ Hermann Langbein – eine biographische Skizze.” In: Andrea Löw / Kerstin Robusch / Stefanie Walter, eds.: Deutsche – Juden – Polen. Geschichte einer wechselvollen Beziehung im 20. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2004, pp. 181–197.