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Eyewitness to Genocide: The Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials, 1955-1966
by Michael Bryant
University of Tennessee Press, 2014
Paper: 978-1-62190-262-1 | eISBN: 978-1-62190-070-2 | Cloth: 978-1-62190-049-8
Library of Congress Classification D804.G4B769 2014
Dewey Decimal Classification 940.5318

One of the deadliest phases of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime’s “Operation Reinhard”

produced three major death camps—Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor—which claimed the

lives of 1.8 million Jews. In the 1960s, a small measure of justice came for those victims

when a score of defendants who had been officers and guards at the camps were convicted

of war crimes in West German courts. The conviction rates varied, however. While all but

one of fourteen Treblinka defendants were convicted, half of the twelve Sobibor defendants

escaped punishment, and only one of eight Belzec defendants was convicted. Also,

despite the enormity of the crimes, the sentences were light in many cases, amounting to

only a few years in prison.

In this meticulous history of the Operation Reinhard trials, Michael S. Bryant examines

a disturbing question: Did compromised jurists engineer acquittals or lenient punishments

for proven killers? Drawing on rarely studied archival sources, Bryant concludes

that the trial judges acted in good faith within the bounds of West German law. The key

to successful prosecutions was eyewitness testimony. At Belzec, the near-total efficiency

of the Nazi death machine meant that only one survivor could be found to testify. At Treblinka

and Sobibor, however, prisoner revolts had resulted in a number of survivors who

could give firsthand accounts of specific atrocities and identify participants. The courts,

Bryant finds, treated these witnesses with respect and even made allowances for conflicting

testimony. And when handing down sentences, the judges acted in accordance with

strict legal definitions of perpetration, complicity, and action under duress.

Yet, despite these findings, Bryant also shows that West German legal culture was

hardly blameless during the postwar era. Though ready to convict the mostly workingclass

personnel of the death camps, the Federal Republic followed policies that insulated

the judicial elite from accountability for its own role in the Final Solution. While trial

records show that the “bias” of West German jurists was neither direct nor personal, the

structure of the system ensured that lawyers and judges themselves avoided judgment.
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