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GoetheInstitute

29/10/2007

Good comrades

Historian Stefan Klemp investigates the role of the German postwar criminal justice system system in aiding the perpetrators of the Rechnitz massacre

The murder of roughly 200 Jews in the night of March 24-25, 1945, in the eastern Austrian village of Rechnitz is now the subject of a heated debate, focussing on the question of whether the murder occurred at a party thrown by a "Thyssen countess." This fact, however, has been common knowledge at the very latest since 1998, when historian Eva Holpfer published her findings (here in German as pdf file) on the "Rechnitz Massacre": The mass murder did take place that night, and was carried out by guests at a party at Schloss Rechnitz. Far more interesting, however, than the question of whether or not the heiress of a German industrialist family was involved, is the question of what happened to the murderers.

Files now under examination at the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Dortmund have uncovered a grotesque and scandalous act on the part of the West German authorities. After 1945, SS officer Franz Podezin, the man believed to be behind the Rechnitz massacre, not only worked as an agent for the Western Allies in the GDR; West German criminal prosecution authorities also enabled him to flee Germany. More than anything else, the case shows it's high time the history of the Federal Criminal Police Office were itself investigated.

In recent days, this Nazi massacre has been blown up into a major media event: Countess Margit von Batthyany, born into the Thyssen family, had 200 Jews shot at a "party" in the Austrian town of Rechnitz, the Bild Zeitung reported. Just what role she played in the events on March 24-25, is unclear however. But beyond doubt is that she was at the party in Schloss Rechnitz, and had close ties with at least one of the perpetrators. It is also known that the case is not unique. According to Austrian investigators, 220 Hungarian Jews had already been shot in Rechnitz at the beginning of March. Local Nazi party leader Eduard Nicka participated "in the shooting of the Jews, as well as the ensuing carousal at Schloss Rechnitz," the sources state.

The main suspect, Franz Podezin, was born in 1911 in Vienna. Commander of the Rechnitz Nazi Party, he was also an SS Sturmscharführer (squadron leader) and criminal investigator with the border police in Rechnitz/Burgenland. In this function, he carried out business in Rechnitz for the Gestapo, who were headquartered in Schloss Rechnitz. The Austrian judiciary carried out investigations after the war, but was allegedly unable to discover his whereabouts. In 1963, however, he was living in Kiel, and had managed to escape German postwar criminal investigations.

Podezin had organised the mass execution in the night of March 24-25, 1945, while celebrating the "comradeship" of the SS, Gestapo and NSDAP in Schloss Rechnitz. It wasn't the first time that the host, countess Margit Batthyany, had made the manor available for such purposes. The majority of victims - roughly 180 - have never been found. They were among the thousands of Hungarian Jews forced to work on the construction of the "southeast wall" (the line of fortifications meant to protect against the advancing Soviet troops - ed). Classified as "unfit for work," they were transported to Rechnitz on March 24, 1945, to be shot there. It was evening they arrived.

The Red Army was just a few kilometres away. The comradeship party began at 9 pm. Late in the evening, Podezin left the merrymaking with ten or so guests, to shoot the sick slave labourers at trenches that had been dug during the evening. Where exactly these are located is unknown. According to statements by the administrator of the estate, Hans-Joachim Oldenburg, 300 Jewish slave labourers "lived" in the castle cellar. But these were not identical with the victims, he maintained.

The culprits have never been called to account, although there was a trial in Austria in 1948. One witness was shot before the trial, and it could be that other "vigilante murders" are also linked to the massacre. Only two of the accused were given mild prison sentences, which were later considerably shortened.

When the Central Office filed murder investigation proceedings against Franz Podezin and Hans-Joachim Oldenburg with the criminal prosecution office in Dortmund in 1963, the prosecutor in charge was on his guard. "As it may be feared that Podezin could be warned by Oldenburg or Countess Batthyany, I would ask all parties not to approach these persons, but to contact me directly so that I may obtain an arrest warrant," he wrote on February 18, 1963.

Although Podezin's domicile in Kiel was quickly ascertained, these warnings went unheeded. "It seems necessary to question Oldenburg, to clarify whether the proceedings against him are to be suspended. Nevertheless, Podezin must not be warned, lest he should take flight. For this reason, references to him must be avoided during Oldenburg's questioning," noted public prosecutor Dr. S. on March 22, 1963. The Central Office in Dortmund questioned Oldenburg on March 26, 1963, without having obtained an arrest warrant for Podezin. And whereas the investigators in Dortmund were dissatisfied with the speed of Oldenburg's questioning, they nevertheless allowed themselves plenty of time with Podezin's arrest warrant. Not only that, public prosecutor Dr. S. questioned Oldenburg very specifically about Podezin.

The Dortmund public prosecutor's office then resolved to suspend proceedings against Oldenburg and turn the Podezin case over to the public prosecution in Kiel, where the files were sent on April 18, 1963. Yet the Central Office in Dortmund had still not applied for an arrest warrant from the district court in Kiel. That did not happen until May 7, 1963. On May 9, the State Criminal Police Office in Kiel had an arrest warrant and search warrant. Podezin was to be apprehended the following day.

In the meantime, however, the criminal investigation authorities in Schleswig-Holstein, "in consideration of the accused's earlier activities for the Allied intelligence services in the Soviet Occupation Zone" with the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, had ascertained that Podezin had been condemned to 25 years imprisonment in the Soviet Occupation Zone for espionage, but had been released to West Germany after serving eleven years of his sentence. It was to be suspected that Podezin was now working for the Eastern intelligence services. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution had commenced the requisite investigations, it was said.

What had to happen then happened. When the police moved in to arrest Podezin on May 10, 1963, he was already in Denmark. His wife told the officers that he had taken flight when he found out that inquiries were being made about him. In what followed, the responsible custodial judge in Kiel, Dr. M., refused both a wire tap and postal surveillance of his wife, as well as an extradition warrant for Denmark. He wanted to "wait a week, to see if Podezin wouldn't return on his own." In so doing, the judge demonstrated a farsightedness similar to the police and prosecutors in Dortmund and Kiel.

Now the Federal Criminal Police Office became involved, an agency manned by experts of the former Reich Security Main Office (a subordinate organisation of the SS during the war – ed). In response to their inquiries, governmental criminal investigator Kurt Griese of Wiesbaden informed the Central Office in Dortmund on May 13 1963 that the "general secretary of Interpol had ruled in a case of precedence that Interpol should not get involved in cases of the present kind." In 1943, Criminal investigator officer Kurt Griese had belonged to the Third Task Force in Lithuania as an SS Hauptsturmführer, or captain, and then joined the Higher SS and Police Leaders in the Eastern Countries (Höheren SS- und Polizeiführer Ostland).

In this way, Franz Podezin was able to travel to Switzerland unmolested, and send an extortion letter to Oldenburg indicating his hotel address. By the end of May, 1963, Podezin was already in Spain. The Central Office in Dortmund then turned to the Federal Criminal Police Office, with the aim of "prompting" Podezin's arrest in Spain. The Federal Criminal Office responded on May 28 1963 that as yet no measures had been authorised against Podezin in Spain. Such decisions were the business of governmental investigator Kurt Griese or Paul Dickopf, later president of the Federal Criminal Police Office and formerly member of the Nazi SD, or Security Service. Both men, however, "could not be reached at present."

In the meantime, Franz Podezin wrote a second letter from Valencia to Hans-Joachim Oldenburg, demanding money and giving his current address. Kurt Griese of the Federal Criminal Police Office, however, continued to refuse the arrest of his former comrade Franz Podezin in Spain. Then in June 1963, Countess Batthyany surprisingly offered to the public prosecutors in Dortmund that she herself could act as a witness. A meeting was arranged for the 8th of the month, only to be subsequently cancelled by the head of the prosecution office. An extradition warrant had finally been issued in Kiel, but before it could be enacted, Podezin had disappeared to South Africa and so escaped the German judiciary. What happened to him then is unknown. Franz Podezin's address in 1973: 1 Briley Court, De Jager Street, Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

The case of Podezin is by no means isolated. Other Nazi perpetrators also worked for the Allied secret services. Possibly concentration camp physician Dr. Aribert Heim did as well, a man who is still the subject of an international search. Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, comments: "The German law enforcement agencies at least aided the flight of SS officer Franz Podezin. Only immediate investigations in Germany and Austria can shed light on the full scope of the affair."

*

The article was originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on October 25, 2007

Stefan Klemp is a historian and journalist. He is author of the book "Nicht ermittelt. Polizeibataillone und die Nachkriegsjustiz" (2005), and is director of historical research in Germany for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.


Translation: lp

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