Thousands of war criminals were tried at the places where they had committed their crimes, especially in Poland (e.g. the 1947 Warsaw trial of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp and forty or so SS members at the camp), in Hungary, Norway, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the USSR.
In 1947, Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) set up, in Austria, a historical documentation centre dedicated to finding Nazi criminals and providing the law with criminal evidence.
German jurisdictions sentenced approximately six thousand people. Sentences of life imprisonment were handed down but, overall, the number of judgements and sentences remained moderate.
Between 1963 and 1965, trials of around twenty Auschwitz camp managers were held in Frankfurt am Main. From 1975 to 1981, trials of the Maïdanek camp managers were held in Düsseldorf.
Other trials were held at the start of the 1980s. Serge and Beate Klarsfeld led the fight that enabled three senior organisers of French Jewish deportation to be tried: Kurt Lischka, Herbert Hagen and Ernst Heinrichsohn, who were sentenced in 1980 to 10, 6 and 12 years imprisonment respectively by the Cologne Criminal Court.
The trial of Adolf Eichmann (found and seized in Argentina) was held in Jerusalem for over four months from April to August 1961. Its impact was international. The bill of indictment, introduced by Israel’s public prosecutor Gideon Hausner, featured fifteen charges consolidated into crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership of a criminal organisation. The numerous witnesses who came to the bar described the hard facts of Jewish extermination in Europe. Adolf Eichmann, who was found guilty of all the charges made against him, was sentenced to death in December 1961 and was hung on 1st June 1962.
In 1987-1988, John Demjanjuk, accused of taking part in gassing operations at the Treblinka extermination camp (Poland), was tried in Israel after extradition by the United States, where he had lived since the early 1950s. His death sentence was quashed by Israel’s Court of Appeal because of a doubt concerning his identity.
After returning to the United States, he was again extradited in 2009, pursued this time in Germany, where he was accused of complicity in exterminating 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor extermination camp (Poland).
After the Liberation, several courts tried various French or German officials.
The expression “crime against humanity” was still not employed and proceedings did not directly highlight Jewish persecution.
Political leaders were tried by France’s High Court of the Liberation Justice for “treason and collusion with the enemy”.
Some were sentenced to death: Philippe Pétain on 15th August 1945; Pierre Laval, Council of State Chairman on 10th October and Joseph Darnand, founder of the “Service d’Ordre Légionnaire” collaborationist militia on 5th October of the same year. Pétain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The two other were executed. René Bousquet, General Secretary for the Police in the second Laval government, was tried on 23rd June 1949 and sentenced under French law to “dégradation nationale” (loss of civil rights for up to 20 years) for his participation in the Vichy government.
Courts of Justice (one per Court of Appeal, divided into as many sections as there are French Departments) tried collaborators.
Acts of collusion with the enemy were tried by these Departmental sections. Hence, Robert Brasillachin and Charles Maurras where sentenced to death in Paris and Lyon respectively. Paul Touvier too, but this collaborator was sentenced in absentia in both Lyon and Chambéry.
Less serious acts were tried by citizens’ courts, which passed sentences involving deprival of civil rights.
• Military courts tried Germans for “war crimes”. Klaus Barbie, the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, was sentenced to death in absentia by military courts in both 1952 and 1954. In January 1953, a military court in Bordeaux tried twenty one members of the Das Reich division, including twelve from Alsace incorporated by force, who were responsible for the Oradour-sur-Glane (Haute-Vienne Department) massacre. In 1954, SS general Knochen in charge of the SIPO-SD German secret police authority in France and his subordinate Oberg were sentenced to death in Paris; they were reprieved in 1958 and sent to Germany in 1962, after being detained for seventeen years. Also in 1954, Aloïs Brunner, who collaborated directly with Adolf Eichmann and managed the Drancy camp from June 1943 to August 1944, was sentenced to death in absentia by a military court in Paris. In 1990, he was apparently located in Syria and, in 2001, he was re-sentenced in absentia in France to life imprisonment.
In all, over eight hundred death sentences were carried out with the framework of the law. Four thousand “summary” executions would have been carried out in parallel.
Trials for “crimes against humanity” have only been held in France from the 1970s onwards.
Frenchman Paul Touvier,
one of the militia leaders in the Rhône Department
A complaint of crimes against humanity was lodged against Paul Touvier in 1973.
Sentenced to death in absentia after the Liberation, he was granted a reprieve by French President Georges Pompidou.
Following a very long procedural battle, Touvier was charged in 1981, then arrested in 1989 in a priory. The case was dismissed by the Paris Court of Appeal in April 1992. This decision was subsequently quashed.
Touvier was finally tried by the Yvelines Department Criminal Court from 17th March to 20th April 1994. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity with crimes against humanity, (execution of seven Jewish hostages in Rillieux-la-Pape).
He died in prison on 17th July 1996 at the age of eighty-one.
Frenchman Maurice Papon,
a senior civil servant
In 1981, the press revealed Maurice Papon’s responsibilities in the deportation of Jews in the Gironde Department. General secretary of the Gironde prefecture between 1942 and 1944, this senior civil servant was police chief in Paris, when the 17th October 1961 demonstration involving Algerians, who were protesting against a curfew imposed on them, was very violently repressed. He was Budget Minister from 1978 to 1981.
Charged in 1983, he was left free and was only tried some fourteen years later by the Gironde Department Criminal Court. This trial, held between 8th October 1997 and 2nd April 1998, was the longest in French judicial history and was one of the very few in which the accused was not held in custody. Maurice Papon was sentenced to ten years in prison for complicity with crimes against humanity (arrests and illegal confinement leading to four deportation rail convoys that left Bordeaux). He tried to escape and was arrested in Switzerland the following day. He rendered himself insolvent.
Released for medical reasons on 18th September 2002, Papon challenged the conditions of his trial before the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld his case merely on a point of procedure.
He died on 17th February 2007 in the Paris region.
German Klaus Barbie,
head of the Lyon Gestapo
Barbie was brought back to France in 1984 by Mr. and Mrs. Klarsfeld: he was tried in Lyon in 1987.
The 4th July 1987 sentence for crimes against humanity was the first ever handed down in France.