Auschwitz and Complicity in Mass Murder

Rudolph Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was executed on the 16thApril, 1947 for ‘crimes against humanity’. Hoss was a fervent Nazi and ran Auschwitz with brutal enthusiasm. Auschwitz was the end of a long process where very many people made important contributions before Hoss could begin his ghastly vocation. Many of those assisting him were not committed Nazis. They were people doing a job and earning a living. This post is about those people. Are they too guilty of murder? How far does the hand of justice go?

Hoss was doing his ‘job’ as a senior officer in a death camp. His ‘job’ was murder; at least it was after the Nazi defeat when laws were changed. Prior to defeat it was not illegal to kill those who were deemed Untermensch (sub-humans). After defeat Hoss was convicted of a crime, which had been newly created: crimes against humanity. Because of this new crime Hoss was executed, which he richly deserved.

Auschwitz was huge*. Considerable amounts of food were necessary, which had to be bought and delivered. Transportation of hundreds of thousands of people** from all over Europe was a job for thousands of people just doing their jobs. Buildings had to be built, designed and maintained. Enormous amounts of fuel were used to fire up the crematoria, which needed installing. I G Farben, a major German company and Nazi party donor, seized the opportunity to set up a factory in Auschwitz. The two principals, Otto Ambros and Walter Durrfeld, were sentenced to eight years for employing slave labour in Auschwitz in factories designed and sited to exploit slave labour. Both served four years. Both were utterly complicit in second-degree murder through over-work, starvation and endemic brutality.

This punishment contrasts with that of two directors of the company who supplied Zyklon B (the poisonous gas used on Auschwitz’s victims) which was the means of fulfilling Auschwitz’s purpose. Both knew that their product was sold to Auschwitz for a lethal purpose: a murderous purpose. They personally were uninvolved in the murders but they facilitated them. Without Zyklon B, the murders would have been far less ‘efficient’. Did the directors of the manufacturers of Zyklon B deserve to die like Hoss? The War Crimes Tribunal thought, ‘Yes,’ and two directors were executed.


The two companies I G Farben, who established a slave-labour factory and Zyklon B manufacturers Tesch/Stabenow and Dagesch murdered many death camp victims. Directors of all three companies were found guilty of crimes against humanity, but only two directors were executed. The other two received relatively short sentences. Is slave labour induced death less bad than immediate death?

The victims of Auschwitz were brought to the camp by train. Those trains were appalling. Train drivers could not but have noticed that cattle wagons, filled with desperate people, was unusual ‘freight’ and that Auschwitz was an unusual destination but they still did what they did. There is no evidence that train drivers were pursued by the War Crimes Tribunal. Train drivers were vital to the running of Auschwitz. Furthermore, train drivers need signalmen to ensure that railroads are safe and the flow of traffic is smooth. This was especially the case as Nazi Germany was at war with the Soviet Union with nightmarish logistical challenges. War material, soldiers and concentration camp victims all shared the same tracks going east. Train drivers? Signalmen?

What could those train drivers, signalmen, poison manufactures, food suppliers, builders and many others have done? Nazi Germany was not a benign democratic country where objections were heard and listened to. How far does personal responsibility go before you can be declared ‘complicit’ in a crime inside a dictatorship?

* 425 acres
**In August 1944 there were 105,168 victims interned in Auschwitz. This was the peak population having been scaled up from 10,000 in 1941.


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