by Katja Hoyer
Wednesday, 21
December 2022
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07:30

Was this Germany’s last ever Nazi war crime trial?

Irmgard Furchner's conviction brings belated justice to Holocaust survivors
by Katja Hoyer
Irmgard Furchner in court on 20th December. Credit: Getty.

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.


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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 Schreibtischtäter — 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.

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Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 month ago

The vindictiveness of the people, who go after these tiny, tiny, cogs, after all these years sickens and disgusts me. Are they really after justice, or is it more ‘performative’, to demonstrate how ‘virtuous’ they are ?

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Tiny? Years later, she still is not overwhelmed with horror and gust about what she did.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

The holocaust was horrible, but it happened. Prosecuting every tangentially responsible cog in the Nazi war machine eighty years after the fact won’t undo it. This reeks of modern Germany trying, desperately, to assuage their collective guilt for committing one of the worst collective crimes in human history. It reminds me of the reparations discussions in the US, a lot of do-gooding that doesn’t do much good. A lot of bad stuff happened in the past that we can’t undo, and we’re better off not trying. We can’t fix the damage that was done in the past, but we can do a whole lot more damage trying to fix it in the present.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Jolly
Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago

“she was accused of being complicit in the murder of over 10,000 people.”
If she’s guilty then so is every German who kept the power on, maintained roads, grew food or milled wood. I hope the Germans feel better.

Michael W
Michael W
1 month ago

Her shorthand was the key factor behind the Holocaust, without her clerical skills none of the horrors would have happened.

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael W

You’re missing the point. It was her ability to carry on processing people she knew were going to be gassed that must be chilling. Yes, in another time and place, she would have been an ordinary person. Her ability to be part of a genocidal machine, however minor or banal her role, because it was a normal part of her society condemns her, and should make us ponder how people can jettison their own moral agency.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago

At least in the UK we confine this sort of vindictiveness to octogenarian former soldiers who had the pleasure of serving in Northern Ireland, such as Corporal Major Derek Hutchins, late of The Life Guards.

Currently despite having his case dismissed on numerous occasions, one Soldier F, late of The Parachute Regiment and another octogenarian, is about to “carry the can” for the entire ‘Bloody Sunday Operation’ of 1972.

How smug the Government must feel.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Hear hear!

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
1 month ago

At leat they actually murdered people

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

Killed yes, murdered NO!

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 month ago

Can’t we put Klaus Schwab in the dock instead?

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

You’d have to be sick to put a 97 year old woman in the dock.

Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

So the Germans are still “German”.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago
Reply to  Brett H

It should come as no surprise that the most appalling ‘Witch Trials and subsequent burnings took place in the Prince-Bishoprics of 17th century Germany.
The city of Würzburg being a notable example.

Last edited 1 month ago by stanhopecharles344
Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

Why? Do we trust she’ll be held accountable in an afterlife?

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago

Interesting how almost every comment is of the view that this was a ridiculous virtue signalling trial made to just make the prosecutors etc feed good. If she should have been prosecuted then it should have happened in 1945.
Now it is just a travesty of justice.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 month ago

It’s encouraging to see that every single commenter disapproves of this ‘trial’. Could it be a light at the end of the tunnel of virtue-signaling?

Jonny S
Jonny S
1 month ago

Look how quickly Britain had a nation of stasi informers hiding behind their net curtains during the cove nonsense. To prosecute a young girl at the time following orders is monumentally stupid.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 month ago

Surely this can’t be the last trial, she was 18! … must be loads of Hitler Youth younger than that and still alive today.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I’d feel deeply uncomfortable prosecuting people for being part of a youth group as children, many of whom would have joined at the behest of their parents.
Even charging this lady doesn’t sit entirely right with me, given her age at the time and the fact she was little more than than admin worker (albeit at a truly evil place), especially as if she’d refused to do her job she’d have likely ended up in the showers with all the other poor souls

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Actually, in many cases parents didn’t want their children to join the youth groups, but to refuse would have (and did) put them in jeopardy.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

Good point, however I still don’t believe it would be right to chase these people for joining a group as children, especially as they’d have spent their entire childhood bombarded with propaganda from the dictatorship

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

A worrying prosecution alright. I suspect there are also many Germans equally offended by bureaucrats’ reach into the typing pool. Evidence of complicity being the view from the Secretarial office, capable of facilitating criminal behaviour, is surely a “bridge too far.” Perhaps the person serving sandwiches to the Wirecard fraudsters as they concocted their false invoices in Doha should consider her/his options.

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

IIRC membership of the Hitler Youth was legally mandated, so even less justification for charging its members.

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

She murdered millions with her type writer, we also need to track down the people who made the type writer, some of them may be alive

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Isn’t this just scapegoating? Let’s hang the EVIL sign around the 97 year old’s neck for her crime as an 18 year old typist. It’s not us who have any faults – see how assiduously we are searching out any wrongdoing, we can even track a mistake made by a teenager 70 years ago. Such is our virtue.

Such is their lack of understanding and humanity.

“ordinary people who had agency and made choices” – is this judging the past by today’s standards? We are a lot more ‘individual’ than that generation. We’ve been brought up to consider our own thoughts and feelings, and feel we can act on them, at least a lot more than that generation. A girl of 18 did what she was told. After the horrible economic situation before the war, parents were very keen to see their children get a ‘safe’ government job. I doubt the 18 year old girl ever considered that she had agency to pick and choose her career.

“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.”

The only lesson learned from this trial is that none of us will ever be safe. We might think that we led OK lives, but perhaps when we’re 97 years old the inquisition will come for us.

Ironically, the fanatics who pursued this old woman, have shown her the same inhumanity they claim she was guilty of, at 18 years of age.

Last edited 1 month ago by Russell Hamilton
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago

“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.”
Indeed. There but for the grace of God go we. You could argue that every civil servant in the Ministry of Health during the C*v*d fiasco was an accessory to crimes against humanity.

Christopher Michael Barrett
Christopher Michael Barrett
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Excellent point. Many armchair supporters of this conviction probably imagine that THEY alone are special and would not have collaborated, having been raised as a child for over a decade under Hitler.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I took Gordon’s post as being in jest. It is clearly ridiculous to prosecute a woman who had a tiny, inconsequential part in the horrors that took place when she, and people like her, were not prosecuted after the war.
This was clearly about virtue signalling.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob N

Seeing his other comments I can now see that’s the case. Unfortunately when I replied to that comment it was the only one there so it wasn’t so obvious

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

But why does she seem to have expressed or felt no horror at what took place?

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

You know Gordo, I suspect you will be right

We will see more show trials, it will never end. NEVER

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 month ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Yes, esp. for others who made similar lethal use of shorthand and typewriters.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 month ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Sure, the likes of Clarkson and JK Rowing will be first against the wall for the use of their lethal typewriters

Dave R
Dave R
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

…if the alt-woke have their way, yes. The latter must be stopped. Ms. Sturgeon, otoh, has many a wall waiting to prop her up. Temporarily.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Of course the real truth is that the vast majority of active Nazis suffered no criminal action whatsoever, and slid quietly back into life, not least into politics, local government and powerful economic and financial positions whilst the Allies and Stalin turned a blind eye, and we merely swapped a Nazi threat for a communist Russian threat and effectively and spinelessly waved them into large parts of Europe.

To add economic insult to financial injury, whilst West Germany conveniently incurred no annual defence budget burden, Britains economic recovery was saddled with the vast cost of not only BAOR in Germany, but massive defence commitments that required National Service and all the associated costs to maintain it until 1962…. So who actually WON the war? West Germany, and not on ‘ penalties”!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

I can see a time in Britain in the not too distant future when the ever growing National Socialist regime here passes more an more laws, so as to enable those who disagree with their ” racism/lgbtq/ global warming” will end up in what will be, to all intents and purposes the equivalent of concentration camps, whilst we the populus humbly sit back and take it….

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 month ago

It started already with the Covid Lockdown. Even if you wanted to sit on a park bench or on the grass, police came and told you off. I will never forget these unscientific, foolish, even evil rules by clueless, overreaching governments. Soon nonsensical rules will be implemented in the name of Climate Crisis. The plebs will be told when and how to heat their homes, when and how far they can travel and told which food they will be allowed to eat. The UN will spin lie after lie about Climate catastrophes (we were already told by the UN Gen. Secretary that weather catastrophes increased 500% this year, which according to R.Pielke Jr. was a mega lie !). World Government will eventually interfere in every aspect of our lives… Where are the brave politicians, journalists and the public to stand up against this unscientific and wilful dictatorship? I haven’t even touched on what we will be able to say, our language will be changed to woke and free speech severely limited

Last edited 1 month ago by Stephanie Surface
Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
1 month ago

A disgusting show trial but hopefully now, in the interest of justice, we’ll see the Israeli authorities prosecute their geriatric former soldiers for mass murder of 60 peasants and rape of women and girls at Safsaf in 1948 and the execution of 19 men, 6 women and 23 children at Kafr Qasim in 56. After all, if we can go after typists, we can surely go after more recent mass murderers and war rapists. Just a thought!

B Davis
B Davis
1 month ago

Do we not hear ourselves?
“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”
The role that Nazi Germany SECRETARIES ??? played in enabling the Holocaust?
Are we insane?
What about the role that grocers played? They provided the food that Hoppe and his secretaries ate…do they not share in the collective guilt? And the shoemakers? And the painters & wall-paperers & plumbers & electricians & tailors & mechanics? And what about the families of all those tradesmen? For every plumber who “enabled the regime’s crimes” by putting in a sink….I’d bet their wives and children helped to enable them to perform those enabling tasks?! And their teachers at the local plumbing school? And the makers of the bicycles upon which those plumbers rode! And those who made the monkey-wrenches & drain snakes & manufactured new P-Traps!
I mean how far does the enabling guilt extend? Where does it end?
Can we not simply say that any German who was alive during that horrific time somehow ‘enabled’ something, somewhere? And surely we cannot stop just with guilty Germans can we? Are there not Frenchmen who aided in this poisonous process? And Austrians? And Czechs? And Greeks & Poles & Dutch, & Swiss, & Norwegians, etc?
And why stop with Europe?
Can we not make a case that the World, as a whole, did its own fair share of enabling and collaborating and passively tolerating / accepting and letting things slide? Of course it did.
The point is that true, criminal guilt for acts of evil undertaken by evil men does not and cannot extend to everyone who was, however indirectly, somehow complicit (actively or passively) in those evil acts.
As for the ‘banality of evil’….this incessant self-righteous, holier-than-thou, condemnation of ‘the other’ reeks of it.
The author tells us, “ordinary people had agency and made choices’. Indeed they did. So do we. And a little humility goes a long way when we make those choices…especially when we consider the very human truth that there, but for the grace of God, go I.
“First they came for the Somebody Else…and I did not speak out because I was not a Somebody Else,” In fact, that’s exactly who we are. It’s who we always are.
But it’s a whole lot easier for all of us without sin to cast that first stone. So much more satisfying, too!

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
1 month ago

The irony here is that this woman was a stenographer. Without the immaculate records she and her kind kept, there would have been little basis for the hundreds of post-war trials of Nazi criminals.

Other than a relatively tiny handful of death sentences handed out, most of the criminals got off lightly, in some cases with less than a month of jail time per murder. But the primary purpose of the trials was for public information, to convince the Germans and others that the events had in fact taken place. And in this, they were eminently successful.

A more retributive approach might have required simple proof that the defendant worked at one of the camps, with immediate execution as the only just punishment. The Russians practiced this, at least in the immediate aftermath, and it’s hard to blame them. But all in all, the lessons were learned, and the world is a better place for all the judicial effort expended.

I just can’t believe they let her wear this mask and glasses. With her suspended sentence, she could walk into a Polish grocery store tomorrow, and no one would notice her.

David Pogge
David Pogge
1 month ago

It is easy to see how those who were decision makers in this process were responsible and guilty. This is very easy to see when considering those at the top (i.e., Hitler, Himmer, etc.). It is easy to see how those who did not make the ultimate decisions but voluntarily joined and knowingly facilitated the process that they understood (e.g., Eichmann) were also responsible – albeit somewhat less so – and guilty. It is also easy to see the responsibility and guilt of those who were given a choice and decided to actively participate in killing (e.g., Reserve Police Battalion 101) or other injustices; although it is also possible to understand the pressures they were responding to when they made their choice and to consider that in weighing their responsibility and guilt. However, it seems that as we work down the ladder to those who made no decisions, took no direct action to harm others, but were part of a system much larger than themselves that did terrible things the amount of responsibility and guilt that we apportion to them must be much less. Perhaps not zero, but much less – sometimes much, much less. We all must recognize that if we live in a complex modern society that is run by a government, our government has done and will do things that are evil and reprehensible. While most of us do not get to make those decisions, nor are we knowingly and actively engaged in implementing them, we nevertheless obey the laws, pay the taxes, and otherwise act in ways that support the system that does these things. Thus, none of us is guiltless. If we are going to begin assigning tiny amounts of guilt to one another for being alive and being part of society when these evil things that we knew little or nothing about, and did very little to implement, took place we will have very little time left within which to do anything good. This becomes even more absurd when we try to hold people living now accountable for the misdeeds of those who lived and died before they were born. I do not know the details of Ms. Furchner’s case, but I think that it offers us a chance to reflect on the apportionment of responsibility, blame, and guilt, and ask ourselves when the pursuit of these goes beyond the pursuit of justice and becomes a manipulation in the service of other goals.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
1 month ago

Katja had the luxury of growing up in a West without Nazism in power. This woman didn’t. No one chooses the circumstances they are born in.
Enjoy your moral righteousness, Katja Hoyer. We all know you would’ve done the same, as would’ve most.