December 21, 2022 - 7:30am

Irmgard Furchner was 18 in 1943 when she took up a job in the concentration camp of Stutthof, where more than 60,000 people were killed during the Holocaust. As secretary to the camp commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe, she was accused of being complicit in the murder of over 10,000 people. 

On Tuesday, what may well have been the last Nazi war crime trial reached its verdict, handing Furchner a two-year suspended sentence. It had taken nearly eight decades to convict the former camp typist, now a 97-year-old care home resident. But the trial marked an important step for Germany and for the victims of its dark past.

Furchner was tried in a juvenile court due to her age when she worked at Stutthof from 1943 to 1945. Her defence this week pleaded for discharge without conviction, claiming that “insurmountable doubts” remained over how much their client knew of the systematic murder that took place at Stutthof.

But for the judges the case was clear. Furchner worked for the ruthless Hoppe, from whose building she would have been able to see the Judenlager, the camp section dedicated to Jews. The prisoners’ barracks, the gas chamber and the crematorium were also visible from there. The prosecution concluded that “it has become clear that the accused had a clear view of substantial parts of the camp”. 

The prosecution further outlined that, as Hoppe’s secretary, it was Furchner’s job to “process, sort, prepare and type all of the camp commandant’s documents”, thereby facilitating “the seamless operation of the camp”. Hoppe’s work included sending prisoners to Auschwitz. He also held ‘selections’ at Stutthof, following which many of those deemed unfit, including women and children, were murdered through lethal injections, gassings, shootings and beatings. 

Furchner showed little remorse for supporting Hoppe’s murderous regime. Her only comment was, “I am sorry about all the things that happened. I regret having been at Stutthof during this time. That’s all I can say” — an apology that fell short of an admission of responsibility.

The defendant had tried to evade justice altogether. In a letter to the judge she pleaded to be spared the “scorn and mockery” of a public trial. On the morning of the opening day of the trial she tried to flee her retirement home in a taxi, only to be re-captured. 

But Furchner’s trial was crucial. The first civilian woman to have been held responsible for working in a Nazi camp, she is an example of a SchreibtischtĂ€ter — a desk murderer — as the German term phrase puts it, just one of thousands of administrative staff whose collaboration enabled the Holocaust. 

When the first war crime trials were held in the months and years after 1945, the focus was understandably on the most prominent surviving perpetrators. Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz, was convicted and executed in Poland in 1947. 

But millions of murders required the collaboration of countless individuals across Europe, many of whom were never tried, never mind convicted. Traudl Junge, who worked as Hitler’s private secretary from 1942 when she was 22 years old, was deemed by the Allies to have been too young to really understand what she had signed up for. She continued to live a free life in West Germany after the war. 

Given the age of the remaining Nazi perpetrators, the case of Irmgard Furchner is likely to be the last chance for Germany’s legal system to make an explicit point about the role that Nazi Germany’s secretaries played in enabling the regime’s crimes. Survivors and Holocaust organisations rightly expected justice, however late it may have arrived. 

However long ago the crimes, the trials that deal with them continue to gather important evidence, reminding us that the perpetrators were not faceless monsters but instead ordinary people who had agency and made choices. As such, they make crucial points about the banality of evil. In a different time Furchner would likely have been a typist in an ordinary company, or perhaps the civil service. Yet, placed under Hitler’s regime, she didn’t hesitate to become a cog in his murderous machine.

The last Nazi war crime trials are therefore as important as ever — not just for what happened in the past but, perhaps, to learn lessons for the future, too.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.