Justice behind the Iron Curtain: Nazis on Trial in Communist Poland
In Justice behind the Iron Curtain, Gabriel N. Finder and Alexander V. Prusin examine Poland’s role in prosecuting Nazi German criminals during the first decade and a half of the postwar era. Finder and Prusin contend that the Polish trials of Nazi war criminals were a pragmatic political response to postwar Polish society and Poles’ cravings for vengeance against German Nazis. Although characterized by numerous inconsistencies, Poland’s prosecutions of Nazis exhibited a fair degree of due process and resembled similar proceedings in Western democratic counties.
The authors examine reactions to the trials among Poles and Jews. Although Polish-Jewish relations were uneasy in the wake of the extremely brutal German wartime occupation of Poland, postwar Polish prosecutions of German Nazis placed emphasis on the fate of Jews during the Holocaust.
Justice behind the Iron Curtain is the first work to approach communist Poland’s judicial postwar confrontation with the legacy of the Nazi occupation.
- Series: German and European Studies
- World Rights
- Page Count: 400 pages
- Dimensions: 6.0in x 1.0in x 9.0in
"Finder and Prusin have prepared a solid, well-documented, and objective book that deserves praise and recognition."
H-Net Reviews (H-Poland)
"Gabriel N. Finder and Alexander V. Prusin’s Justice Behind the Iron Curtain is an exhaustively researched volume that makes an important contribution to the scholarship on postwar justice and Holocaust-related trials."
Natalie Belsky, University of Minnesota Duluth
Austrian Studies Newsmagazine, vol 31, no 1, Spring '19
"This is a wonderfull successful work…A judicious, well-informed presentation of complicated issues. Highly recommended."
T. Flynn, College of the Holy Cross
"Impressively researched and rich in detail, Justice behind the Iron Curtain is the first comprehensive study of Nazi trials in postwar Poland, and as such constitutes a very important contribution to scholarship on the history of war crimes prosecution. The book provides fascinating insights into how the trials created an institutional space (perhaps the only one in postwar Poland) in which the specific suffering of the Jewish people was acknowledged – even though this ran counter to the official communist memory of the war, which erased the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazism."
Franziska Exeler, University of Cambridge, Free University Berlin
In recent years sedulous efforts have been made to develop jurisprudence for dealing with genocide, mass killing, and crimes against humanity. Thus, all the more reason to welcome this well-researched and often disturbing book by Gabriel Finder and Alexander Prusin, who tragically died before its publication. It is, in fact, two separate studies. The first is an account of the "war crimes trials," which took place in Poland between 1946 and 1959. These began with the trials of alleged collaborators under the "August Decree" (Sierpni6wka) promulgated in August 1944, by the Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego -PKWN) and ended with the trial of Erich Koch, Reichskommisar of Ukraine and the chief of the Bialystok administration, in 1958-1959. The second topic is an extensive and valuable discussion of what we can learn from these trials about the perpetrators of the crimes, which adds significantly to what we know about their motives.
Antony Polonsky, International Institute for Holocaust Research (Jerusalem)
Yad Vashem Studies
"Justice behind the Iron Curtain is a cogently argued and clearly presented work on the pursuit of justice in the country that suffered a bloody occupation under the Nazis only to come under Soviet control at the end of the Second World War. With expertise in East European history, Holocaust studies and legal history, Finder and Prusin tackle a topic of great significance, drawing on archival sources, memoirs, the press, and previous search by scholars in Poland and abroad."
Natalia Aleksiun, Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Touro College, NY
"A major work, Justice behind the Iron Curtain fills a gap in the field, and will be of interest to both scholars and members of the general public with a keen interest in history."
Piotr Wróbel, Department of History, Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History, University of Toronto
Author InformationGabriel N. Finder is an associate professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia.
Alexander V. Prusin was a professor of history at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
Table of contents
Chapter 1 A Restive Society Demands Swift Justice
Chapter 2 The Poles at Nuremberg
Chapter 3 The Supreme National Tribunal, 1946–1948
Chapter 4 Himmler’s Men on Trial, 1948–1953
Chapter 5 Jews, Poles, and Justice
Chapter 6 History and Politics in the Last Trials, 1954–1959
Read An Excerpt
The overarching subject of this book, which is reflected in its title, is Poland’s postwar confrontation in its courts of law with the legacy of its occupation by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The country’s occupation by German forces was oppressive, violent, and murderous. To be sure, in the wake of the war, all Allied nations wanted to prosecute war crimes and humanitarian atrocities committed by the Axis powers on their soil, but the Polish case was exceptional by any standard. In the course of six years Poland was subjected to three foreign occupations: between 1939 and 1941 it was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, from 1941 to 1944 it was occupied solely by German forces, and progressively from mid-1944 through the spring of 1945, while the Germans were in retreat, it again fell under Soviet domination, remaining so after the war’s end. Both occupiers subjected Poland to extensive social engineering, which involved the elimination of that country’s national elites and the mass relocation of its population, not to mention mass murder. Among all of the European countries affected by the war, it was Poland that suffered the highest death rate – six million, or about 17 per cent of its prewar population. German terror alone claimed the lives of approximately 5.5 million Polish citizens, including 3 million Jews.
Most Poles quite understandably wanted the Germans (and Austrians) who had been active in Poland during the occupation and who were responsible for this horrific carnage to be brought to justice. At the same time, however, the political circumstances in postwar Poland were extremely volatile. Under the protection of the Soviet army, Polish communists, formed into the Polish Workers’ Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza, PPR), manoeuvred first to seize power and then to consolidate it, even though most Poles viewed them as stooges imposed by a hostile foreign entity. In the immediate postwar years, the noncommunist armed underground had controlled much of the countryside and non-communist political parties had still been represented in the government. But after Polish communists consolidated power in the late 1940s, culminating in the merger of the PPR with the leftwing Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, PPS) and the subsequent establishment of the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR), in December 1948, they imposed a repressive, Stalinist form of communism on the country. Until the end of Stalinism (the Soviet dictator died in 1953) and the consequent political “thaw” (odwilż) in 1956, the communists were preoccupied with repressing political opposition, and many members of the non-communist parties were imprisoned or executed on trumped-up charges. Accordingly, trials of German (and Austrian) Nazis played a less important role in Poland’s official reckoning with the past. Nevertheless, reflecting the desires of the average person on the street, the upper echelons in the PPR (later the PZPR), in order to demonstrate the impartiality of Polish law, which had been reconstituted in the postwar era under communist rule, supported a concerted effort by the Polish legal system to bring Nazi criminals to justice. In an article published in the Polish press during the trial of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, a prominent prosecutor, Tadeusz Cyprian, referred to “historical justice” as a task well suited to the new judicial system – in this instance, “the court itself would write the history of the crime.”
Since in postwar Poland the prosecution of Soviet crimes was out of the question, the trials of Nazi criminals became the sole avenue for postwar retribution and as well as the sole venue in which all segments of Polish society, regardless of political affiliation, could come to some consensus. Given that they functioned in the politically and ideologically loaded postwar context, the war crimes trials in Poland raise many legal and moral questions of historical importance, especially when one considers that law in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe was subordinated to political expediency and that questions of individual guilt were often irrelevant. Because the communist regime was preoccupied with eliminating political opposition, both real and imagined, thousands of Polish citizens were convicted of war crimes for ostensibly aiding or “collaborating” with the Nazi occupation regime. Between 1944 and 1956, Polish courts convicted about 17,000 individuals for war crimes; only one-third of these people – some 5,500 – were German or Austrian nationals or ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche). (As of 1954, 84,200 political prisoners were incarcerated in Poland, having been sentenced under various charges.) In the Lublin District between 1944 and 1954, the courts convicted 12,000 members of opposition and resistance groups (515 of whom were sentenced to death), but they tried only 141 Nazi criminals (17 of whom received the death penalty). To add insult to injury, Polish authorities often incarcerated members of the wartime Polish non-communist resistance to Nazism in the same prison cells as senior Nazis: Kazimierz Moczarski, an officer in the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK), the underground military organization of the Polish government-in-exile, which was headquartered in London, shared a prison cell for 225 days with SS-Gruppenführer (Lieutenant General) Jürgen Stroop, who had been in charge of the German forces that liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto and suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April–May 1943; August Emil Fieldorf, alias “Nil,” a Polish brigadier general and commander-in-chief of the AK after the failure of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, spent time in the same cell as Jakob Sporrenberg, SS and Police Leader (SS- und Polizeiführer, SSPF) of the Lublin District; and Stanisława Rachwał, a member of the Polish resistance in Kraków, encountered Maria Mandel, the vicious supervisor of the women’s camp in Auschwitz, in Kraków’s Montelupich prison, which the Gestapo had used during the war to imprison Poles. It is beyond doubt that the communist regime was more concerned with the political opposition than with Nazi culprits and that it misused the Polish legal system to persecute Polish citizens whom it viewed as political opponents, even tarring some of them with the same brush as they applied to the Nazis. All of this raises the question: Was Polish officials’ professed commitment to punish Nazi criminals merely a smokescreen to appease popular sentiments? In our opinion, the answer is no.
Poland was more persistent than any of the other Soviet satellites in pursuing Nazi criminals and investigating Nazi crimes. Around 5,500 German Nazis were put on trial in Polish courts in the first decade or so of the postwar era – a not inconsiderable number in its own right – and in addition to this, from 1944 to 1985, Polish authorities investigated between 80,000 and 100,000 cases. Truth be told, the Allies were less responsive to the extradition efforts of other Eastern European countries than they were to those made by Poland. Even so, the Allies were supportive of Polish efforts only to a degree. Many if not most Nazis wound up in Allied-occupied western Germany, and with the onset of the Cold War the Americans and the British grew increasingly reluctant to extradite alleged war criminals in their custody to Eastern Europe. By 1947, Polish authorities had handed the Western Allies the names of between 12,000 and 15,000 individuals accused of committing atrocities in Poland, but only some 1,800 had been extradited to Warsaw by 1949 when the extraditions were suspended. After the war, the Polish authorities vigorously pursued Nazi war criminals, yet only a few scholars in or outside Poland have investigated this. No monograph on this topic has been written in any language. This book aims to fill this lacuna in studies of Poland under communist rule and to expand the treatment of the postwar trials of Nazi criminals to include countries behind the Iron Curtain. However, this book is not a study of Polish postwar justice in general. Hence, the trials of political opponents and native collaborators are beyond its scope.
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