Historian Stefan Klemp investigates the role of the German postwar criminal justice
system system in aiding the perpetrators of the Rechnitz
The murder of roughly 200 Jews in the night of March 24-25,
1945, in the eastern Austrian village of Rechnitz is now
the subject of a heated debate, focussing on the question
whether the murder occurred at a party thrown by a "Thyssen
countess." This fact, however, has been common knowledge at the very latest since 1998,
when historian Eva Holpfer published her findings (here
in German as pdf file) on the "Rechnitz Massacre": The mass murder did take place that night, and was carried out by guests at
a party at Schloss Rechnitz. Far more interesting, however,
than the question of whether or not the heiress of a German
industrialist family was involved, is the question of what
happened to the murderers.
Files now under examination at the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi
Crimes in Dortmund have uncovered a grotesque and scandalous
act on the part of the West German authorities. After 1945,
SS officer Franz Podezin, the presumed culprit behind the
Rechnitz massacre, not only worked as an agent for the
Western Allies in the GDR; West German criminal prosecution
authorities also enabled him to flee Germany. More than
anything else, the case shows it's high time the history
of the Federal Criminal Police Office were itself investigated.
Over the past days, this Nazi
massacre has been blown up into a major media event: Countess
Margit von Batthyany, born into the Thyssen family, had
200 Jews shot at a "party" in the Austrian town of Rechnitz, the Bild Zeitung reported. Just what role
she played in the events on March 24-25, is unclear however.
But what is beyond doubt is that she was at the party in
Schloss Rechnitz, and had close ties with at least one
of the perpetrators. It is also known that the case is
not unique. According to Austrian investigators, 220 Hungarian
Jews had already been shot in Rechnitz at the beginning
of March. Local Nazi party leader Eduard Nicka participated "in the shooting of the Jews, as well as the ensuing carousal at Schloss Rechnitz," the sources state.
The main suspect, Franz Podezin,
was born in 1911 in Vienna. Commander of the Rechnitz Nazi
Party, he was also an SS Sturmscharführer (squad leader)
and criminal investigator with the border police in Rechnitz/Burgenland.
In this function, he carried out business in Rechnitz for
the Gestapo, who were headquartered in Schloss Rechnitz.
The Austrian judiciary carried out investigations into
him after the war, but was allegedly unable to discover
his whereabouts. In 1963, however, he was living in Kiel,
and had managed to escape German postwar criminal investigations.
Podezin had organised the mass
execution in the night of March 24-25, 1945, while celebrating
the "comradeship" of the SS, Gestapo and NSDAP in Schloss Rechnitz. It wasn't the first time that
the host, countess Margit Batthyany, had made the manor
available for such purposes. The large majority of the
victims - roughly 180 - have not been found until today.
They were among the thousands of Hungarian Jews forced
to work on the construction of the "southeast wall" (the line of fortifications meant to protect against the advancing Soviet troops
- ed). Classified as "unfit for work," they were transported to Rechnitz on March 24, 1945, to be shot there. It was
evening when they arrived.
The Red Army was just a few kilometres
away. The comradeship party began at 9 pm. Late in the
evening, Podezin left the merrymaking with ten or so guests,
to shoot the sick slave labourers at trenches that had
been dug during the evening. Where exactly these are located
is unknown. According to statements by manor administrator
Hans-Joachim Oldenburg, 300 Jewish slave labourers had "lived" in the castle cellar. But these were not identical with the victims, he maintained.
The culprits have never been called
to account, although there was a trial in Austria in 1948.
One witness was shot before the trial, and it could be
that other "vigilante murders" are also linked to the massacre. Only two of the accused were given mild prison
sentences, which were later considerably shortened.
When the Central Office filed
murder investigation proceedings against Franz Podezin
and Hans-Joachim Oldenburg with the criminal prosecution
office in Dortmund in 1963, the prosecutor in charge was
on his guard. "As it may be feared that Podezin could be warned by Oldenburg or Countess Batthyany,
I would ask all parties not to approach these persons,
but to contact me directly so that I may obtain an arrest
warrant," he wrote on February 18, 1963.
Although Podezin's domicile in
Kiel was quickly ascertained, these warnings went unheeded. "It seems necessary to question Oldenburg, to clarify whether the proceedings
against him are to be suspended. Nevertheless, Podezin
must not be warned, lest he should take flight. For this
reason, references to him must be avoided during Oldenburg's
questioning," noted public prosecutor Dr. S. on March 22, 1963. The Central Office in Dortmund
questioned Oldenburg on March 26, 1963, without having
obtained an arrest warrant for Podezin. And whereas the
investigators in Dortmund were dissatisfied with the speed
of Oldenburg's questioning, they nevertheless allowed themselves
plenty of time with Podezin's arrest warrant. Not only
that, public prosecutor Dr. S. questioned Oldenburg very
specifically about Podezin.
The Dortmund public prosecutor's
office then resolved to suspend proceedings against Oldenburg
and turn the Podezin case over to the public prosecution
in Kiel, where the files were sent on April 18, 1963. Yet
the Central Office in Dortmund had still not applied for
an arrest warrant from the district court in Kiel. That
was done only on May 7, 1963. On May 9, the State Criminal
Police Office in Kiel had an arrest warrant and search
warrant. Podezin was to be apprehended the following day.
In the meantime, however, the
criminal investigation authorities in Schleswig-Holstein, "in consideration of the accused's earlier activities for the Allied intelligence
services in the Soviet Occupation Zone" with the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, had ascertained
that Podezin had been condemned to 25 years imprisonment
in the Soviet Occupation Zone for spying, but had been
released to West Germany after serving eleven years of
his sentence. It was to be suspected that Podezin was now
working for the Eastern intelligence services. The Federal
Office for the Protection of the Constitution had commenced
the requisite investigations, it was said.
What had to happen then happened.
When the police moved in to arrest Podezin on May 10, 1963,
he was already in Denmark. His wife told the officers that
he had taken flight when he found out that inquiries were
being made about him. In what followed, the responsible
custodial judge in Kiel, Dr. M., refused both a wire tap
and postal surveillance of his wife, as well as an extradition
warrant for Denmark. He wanted to "wait a week, to see if Podezin wouldn't return on his own." In so doing, the judge demonstrated a farsightedness similar to the police and
prosecutors in Dortmund and Kiel.
Now the Federal Criminal Police
Office became involved, an agency manned by experts of
the former Reich Security Main Office (a subordinate organisation
of the SS during the war – ed). In response to their inquiries,
governmental criminal investigator Kurt Griese of Wiesbaden
informed the Central Office in Dortmund on May 13 1963
that the "general secretary of Interpol had ruled in a case of precedence that Interpol
may not become involved in cases of the present kind." In 1943, Criminal investigator officer Kurt Griese had belonged to the Third
Task Force in Lithuania as an SS Hauptsturmführer, or captain,
and then joined the Higher SS and Police Leaders in the
Eastern Countries (Höheren SS- und Polizeiführer Ostland).
In this way, Franz Podezin was
able to travel to Switzerland unmolested, and send an extortion
letter to Oldenburg indicating his hotel address. By the
end of May, 1963, Podezin was already in Spain. The Central
Office in Dortmund then turned to the Federal Criminal
Police Office, with the aim of "prompting" Podezin's arrest in Spain. The Federal Criminal Office responded on May 28 1963
that as yet no measures had been authorised against Podezin
in Spain. Such decisions were the business of governmental
investigator Kurt Griese or Paul Dickopf, later president
of the Federal Criminal Police Office and formerly member
of the Nazi SD, or Security Service. Both men, however, "could not be reached at present."
In the meantime, Franz Podezin
wrote a second letter from Valencia to Hans-Joachim Oldenburg,
demanding money and not omitting to give his current address.
Kurt Griese of the Federal Criminal Police Office, however,
continued to refuse the arrest of his former comrade Franz
Podezin in Spain. Then in June 1963, Countess Batthyany
surprisingly offered to the public prosecutors in Dortmund
that she herself could act as a witness. A meeting was
arranged for the 8th of the month, only to be subsequently
cancelled by the head of the prosecution office. An extradition
warrant had finally been issued in Kiel, but before it
could be enacted, Podezin had disappeared to South Africa
and so escaped the German judiciary. What happened to him
then is unknown. Franz Podezin's address in 1973: 1 Briley
Court, De Jager Street, Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
The case of Podezin is by no means
isolated. Other Nazi perpetrators also worked for the Allied
secret services. Possibly concentration camp physician
Dr. Aribert Heim did as well, a man who is still the subject
of an international search. Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of
the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, comments: "The German law enforcement agencies at least aided the flight of SS officer Franz
Podezin. Only immediate investigations in Germany and Austria
can shed light on the full scope of the affair."