Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes

By Patricia Heberer; Jürgen Matthäus | Go to book overview

“No Ordinary Criminal”
Georg Heuser, Other Mass Murderers, and
West German Justice

JÜRGEN MATTHÄUS

During West Germany's formative period, dealing with the criminal record of the Nazi past played a key role in the process of nation-building. Rampant, if tacit, compliance and widespread complicity on the part of large sectors of German society during the war had accompanied, as well as facilitated, systematic mass murder of unprecedented proportions. After 1945 West German elites—most notably politicians, jurists, and law enforcement officers—viewed Allied attempts at adjudicating Nazi crimes with great skepticism. It took a decade after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 for the state to establish mechanisms that facilitated thorough investigations of the crimes and their perpetrators. By that time many of the agents of genocide had found a safe haven in the very profession that had helped execute these crimes and that was now called upon to bring about a measure of justice.

The case of Georg Heuser exemplifies this phenomenon. Heuser, born in 1913, was a Gestapo officer during the war and was involved in the deportation and killing of thousands of civilians, primarily Jews, in the occupied Soviet Union and in Slovakia. After the end of the “Third Reich,” he obscured his Gestapo career and in the early 1950s rejoined the police in the state of RhinelandPalatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), where he finally became the head of the criminal police. In mid-1959 Heuser was arrested, and in late 1962, together with some of his former fellow officers, he was put on trial in the city of Koblenz. The investigations, the trial, and its aftermath highlight some of the problems inherent in West Germany's dealing with wartime mass murder and its agents.1


Heuser's Career before and after 1945

At the beginning of the war, Georg Heuser was twenty-six years old, a lawyer by training and a policeman by profession. Since Hitler's coming to power, the German police functioned as the executor of Nazi policies, a development in-

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