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Prosecution of Nazi Crimes in the GDR up to the Fischer Trial in 1965

In the 1950s, legal action against Nazi war criminals in the GDR had come almost to a standstill. The problem of undetected Nazi perpetrators, which also existed in East Germany, was externalized: projected onto the Federal Republic of Germany. Put another way, many people in the GDR considered Hitler a West German (according to Peter Bender) and saw the Nazis’ crimes as the crimes of the other Germans (Jurek Becker).[1] Accordingly, the number of convictions of Nazi criminals declined even more rapidly in the GDR than in the FRG. From 1956 until the end of the GDR, there were never more than 10 Nazi trials per year.


The East German leadership viewed the prosecution of Nazi crimes as a finished chapter by the final years of the decade. While the first Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt am Main (1963–1965) aroused more national and international attention than any previous Nazi trial, no equivalent could be produced in East Berlin. By direct participation in the proceedings, the GDR’s leadership attempted to influence the first Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial through the accessory prosecutor, Friedrich Karl Kaul, and the expert witness Jürgen Kuczynski. In mid-1965, the East German trial strategy in the West German Auschwitz Trial—a strategy designed to put I.G. Farben in the dock and attack the competition-based social and political system of the FRG—seemed likely to fail. At the same time, preparations for a subsequent trial were already in progress in Frankfurt am Main. At this point in the conflict over interpretations of the recent past—in an extremely inauspicious situation in terms of the SED regime’s political ambitions—the former deputy SS garrison doctor at Auschwitz, Dr. Horst Fischer, was arrested in the GDR.


According to the official perception of history in the GDR, legal action in East Germany to punish the Nazis’ crimes was an unmitigated success story. The SED leadership claimed to have proceeded consistently and above all systematically against Nazi criminals, to have taken into account the degree of individual guilt in each case, and to have sought removal of all tainted persons from their official functions.


The dominant role of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) is the core feature of East Germany’s prosecution of Nazi crimes. Using extralegal methods in its investigations, the investigative agency proceeded almost exclusively from a “political-operative” perspective. The utilitarian handling of incriminating documents went as far as obstruction of justice, depending on whether it seemed opportune to the secret police at the moment to unmask one Nazi criminal or another. The decreed antifascist perception of history in the GDR prohibited any pinpointing of former Nazi perpetrators in the East Germans’ own ranks. The uncoped-with past was to be presented exclusively as a problem of the FRG, as official propaganda claimed. Absolution from their own biographies could be granted to Nazi criminals in the GDR if they held socially important positions or could be blackmailed by the MfS as informers for that ministry. Proof of guilt relevant to criminal prosecution might indeed exist in a given case, but it was not a mandatory requirement for a conviction, nor did corresponding findings lead inevitably to a sentence. In contrast to the FRG, the GDR thus had no rule of compulsory prosecution. It was the principle of expediency that prevailed. “We’ll decide who’s a Nazi,” was the way one member of the MfS formulated this monopoly on interpretation of the past.[2]

(CD; transl. KL)


Becker, Jurek: “Mein Vater, die Deutschen und ich.” In: Die Zeit, May 20, 1994, p. 58, (accessed on January 8, 2009).

“Bittere Wahrheiten, Teil I, Antifaschismus in der DDR – ein Bild mit Flecken?” In: DISPUT 12/1994, p. 8.

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]The GDR, [...] from its first hour on, was living with a lie. It invented a history that never took place—its first ancestors allegedly were the German antifascists. Moreover, there existed no Führer. Of course, there was talk, even quite a lot of it, of the Nazis’ crimes, but those were the crimes of the others. Fascism had nothing to do with us, the people of the GDR, we had miraculously gotten rid of the facts. Films about the Nazi era were always films about the antifascist resistance movement; school lessons about the Nazi era were not lessons about our most recent past, but always dealt with the misdeeds of these terrible aliens, whom we, the antifascists, had vanquished with some help from the Red Army. Of the 10,000 antifascists that there may have been in Nazi Germany, 8 million alone live in the GDR.” (Jurek Becker: “Mein Vater, die Deutschen und ich.” In: Die Zeit, May 20, 1994, p. 58, (accessed on January 8, 2009).) (Translated by KL)

[2] See “Bittere Wahrheiten, Teil I, Antifaschismus in der DDR – ein Bild mit Flecken?” In: DISPUT 12/1994, p. 8.