Stefan Klemp: The role of the German postwar criminal justice system system in aiding the perpetrators of the Rechnitz massacre

Roundup: Talking About History

[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. ]

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 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 presumed culprit 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.

Over the past 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 what is 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 (squad 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 into him 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 large majority of the victims - roughly 180 - have not been found until today. 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 when they arrived....

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