A Perpetrator's Confession: Gender and Religion in Oswald Pohl's Conversion Narrative

By Krondorfer, Bjorn | Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, June 2008 | Go to article overview

A Perpetrator's Confession: Gender and Religion in Oswald Pohl's Conversion Narrative


Krondorfer, Bjorn, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality


Ideally, Christian confessional writings are a public testimony, in which a sinner exposes his shameful past to others, namely to God and the public, so that a reconciliation and transformation can occur. This article pursues the question of whether genocidal perpetrators are capable of such a confession, using the example of Oswald Pohl's conversion narrative, Credo: My Path to God. Pohl had overseen the economic exploitation of slave laborers in the Nazi concentration camps. While in Allied imprisonment after the war, he converted to Catholicism. This article analyzes Credo's religious and gendered rhetoric within the larger political discourse of postwar Germany. Commenting on the conspicuous absence of women in Pohl's confessional testimony, I argue that religion assisted in negotiating a crisis of postwar German masculinity.

On February 12, 1950, in the American War Crime Prison of Landsberg (Bavaria), the former Nazi leader Oswald Pohl officially converted to Catholicism. Shortly after his conversion, he published Credo: Mein Weg zu Gott (Credo: My Path to God), a small booklet containing his public confession. In this largely apologetic text, Pohl presents himself as a new man, who, purged of his sins, has received God's grace. In this article, I will take a closer look at select aspects of this confessional narrative. I will pay attention specifically to the interplay of religious and gendered rhetoric, which assisted in the attempt at normalizing a National Socialist (NS)-perpetrator and at portraying Pohl as a decent human being. The essay will proceed in three steps: After a short biographical sketch, I will first show that it took the collaborative effort of the accused Pohl and his Catholic prison chaplain to turn a religious conversion into a public testimony of a Nazi perpetrator; second, I argue that the absence of women in Credo is not coincidental but a central element of confessional writings in which men try to take account of their past selves; third, I will suggest that the religious rhetoric of Credo negotiates a crisis of postwar German masculinity.

Pohl and his Credo

Born in 1892 into a Protestant family, Pohl grew up in a home of "true religiosity" following the "evangelical-reformed faith tradition" (Pohl, 1950, p. 17). As a member of the National Socialist movement, he joined the SS in 1934 through the administrative and organizational skills. Pohl soon moved up and became the head of the WVHA, the Reich's Economic-Administrative Main Office. He was responsible for organizing the industrial production within the concentration camp system, building and supervising a complex administrative web between the SS, the armament industry and private firms (see Allen, 2000; 2002; Schulte, 2001). Between 1942 and 1945, Pohl oversaw the entire workforce of concentration camp inmates, including the economic utilization of personal possessions of the exterminated Jews, such as their clothing, gold teeth and hair. Arrested in 1946, he was sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials in 1947. After several failed appeals for clemency, he was executed by the Americans in the Landsberg prison on June 7, 1951, among the last seven Nazi war criminals hanged by the American military. (1)

In the summer of 1950, shortly after his conversion to Catholicism and before his execution by the Allies, Pohl wrote Credo. Among accused Nazi war criminals, it was not uncommon after 1945 to (re-)convert to Christianity or to renew their church membership while in Allied captivity. But rarely did anyone publicly repent. Credo, as a public confession and conversion story of a high-ranking Nazi perpetrator, is the exception to the rule. Nine thousand copies of this 75-page booklet were printed with the imprimatur of the Catholic Church in Munich.

On the surface, Credo, which is arranged in four chapters, is a political document that puts a conversion story into the service of reintegrating a perpetrator into postwar German society. …

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