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Good courage in a bad affair is half of the evil overcome.
- Titus Maccius Plautus, Italian playwright (c250-184 BC)
In 1943, a phenomenon began that mercifully did not last long, but was so singularly the epitome of evil that the English language did not then have a term to describe it. One has been coined and, given its origins, has retained a unique capacity to evoke terrible images of privation and suffering. The phenomenon was the holocaust and the word is 'genocide'.
It was in 1943 that Adolf Hitler decided to put into effect the pathological, hate-driven, malevolent plans he had been hatching over the past years for murdering the Jewish people. He had at his disposal the services of a remorseless executioner in the person of Heinrich Himmler, who was, among other things, the chief of the dreaded SS that was the main tool for prosecuting the iniquitous course mapped out by Hitler.
Himmler's minions set to work with a malicious glee in their entire sphere of influence, which stretched from the Pyrenees in the west, to the frontline of the Wehrmacht in the east, deep inside the Soviet Union. They set up a network of extermination camps, mostly inside the boundaries of modern Poland, which utilised a highly efficient organisation geared totally for murder on a large scale.
Predictably, the peoples of the rest of the world were horrified by this unwarranted persecution of their fellow men. But, given mankind's penchant for courage in the abstract as opposed to the concrete form of that virtue, more effort was spent on lofty pronouncements than on actions in this darkest of times. The main exceptions to this rule were the people of Denmark, Finland and Japan, and the Holy See in the Vatican. However, the man who did most at this time to try and stop the atrocities was, improbably enough, a judge in the SS. His name was Konrad Morgen.
Morgen's Early Career
Morgen was born in 1910 in Frankfurt-am-Main and was the son of a German railroad conductor. He decided to pursue a career in law and, as one who was absolutely committed to and inspired by his chosen career, he imbued the ethics of law in its abstract during his student days. His disapproval of illegality, regardless of the status of the perpetrator, and his tenacity in prosecuting the course of justice earned him the sobriquet 'The Bloodhound Judge' later in his career.
Adolf Hitler was referred to as Adolf Legalite ('Adolf the Legal One') by Nazi propaganda. However, his dictatorial regime was certainly not known for its belief in the law and it was in this atmosphere that Morgen embarked on his profession. Predictably, he soon ran into trouble with a provincial magistrate whose judgement he refused to accept. However, his career was saved as he had by this time accepted the post of Assistant Judge with the SS.
He was posted to the Hauptamt SS-Gericht, the Legal Department of the SS, in Cracow and was assigned to deal with cases of corruption. He soon acquired a reputation for passing impartial judgements based strictly on available evidence. The methods that won him this reputation exasperated his superior, HSSPF Krüger, so much so that he was transferred as a punishment to the SS 'Wiking' Division that was at the frontline at that time.
His good reputation travelled with him and in 1943, it was decided by the high command to assign him to the ReichsKriminalPolizeiAmt (RKPA), which was the SS Criminal Police Division to deal with financial crimes. The self-same reputation also caused him to be forbidden from dealing with political cases. He was soon assigned to the 'Karl Koch Case', which was to set him on his long and arduous mission for justice. He was now an SS Obersturmführer (1st Lieutenant).
The Karl Koch Case
It all started with a call that was placed to Morgen's office by the SS Police County XX11, Kassel, who was responsible for the Buchenwald concentration camp, asking for help in investigating a provisions merchant, who was also a Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter, called Bornschein. Emil Holtschmidt, a KP officer who was investigating allegations of profiteering by Bornschein in collusion with Karl Koch, the Camp Commander of Buchenwald, ran into a dead end when Bornschein joined the Waffen SS and had himself posted to the HQ staff over which the SS Police had no jurisdiction. As Bornschein could now only be investigated by an officer in the RKPA, Morgen was brought in to continue the investigations.
In July 1943, the Bloodhound travelled to the Weimar, established himself in a local hostelry called the Elephant Hotel, which, ironically, was also Hitler's favourite local hostelry, and began a surreptitious inquiry into Bornschein's activities.
Superficially, Buchenwald turned out to be quite a nice place, with clean freshly painted installations, gardens with flowering plants and apparently well fed and healthy inmates. But, as Morgen progressed with his investigations into Bornschein's peccadilloes, he found that all was not well with the camp Commandant, Karl Koch.
By the time Morgen had accrued enough proof of Bornschein's transgressions to convict him, Koch found that he was quite firmly in the Bloodhound's sights. Morgen suspected Koch of hiring out camp labourers to civilians, racketeering in food supplies, murdering inmates who opposed him and generally running the camp for his own profit.
Morgen tied up the Bornschein case quickly and started on Koch's trail. He had a special agent interview the prisoners about the irregularities, but the prisoners were not very forthcoming and those who showed signs of being so seemed to die of various causes with an alarming rapidity. His special agent grew frustrated with the total lack of headway he was making and refused to persevere with the investigation, so Morgen turned detective himself. He intercepted letters between Karl and his wife Ilse, dug into their accounts in the local banks and conducted stealthy inquiries within the camp itself.
Within a short period of time, he found out that Koch had embezzled at least 100,000 marks and also found proof of the murder of Krämer and Peix, two inmates of the camp, and indications that witnesses to the murder were slain as well. He also found out that others, like Dr Waldemar Houst, the camp doctor, were involved in the murders and in acts of sadism at the expense of the inmates.
The material he amassed was enough to fill a briefcase. He submitted the lot to Nebe, the Chief of the Criminal Police, who blanched on realising the impact of the evidence and hastily passed it on to the Gestapo chief Müller who promptly shifted responsibility to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the RSHA. Even he was not willing to handle the now red hot evidence and got the Chief of the SS Legal Department involved, who, now predictably, kicked it up to Himmler himself.
Not one to be put off by red tape, Morgen dutifully took the evidence to the Reichsführer's office and sneaked it to Himmler's desk by using a cautiously worded telegram to Himmler outlining the case and with the help of a sympathetic member of Himmler's staff.
Surprisingly, Himmler immediately gave Morgen full authority to proceed against the Koch coterie. In December 1943, Morgen trapped an accomplice of Koch's by the name of Köhler and got him to testify against Koch. Koch wilted against Morgen's relentless interrogation and was packed off to be shot as punishment by the SS Legal Department.
Morgen versus the Holocaust
The Kassel office now authorised Morgen, fresh from his victory in the Koch case, to investigate all the concentration and extermination camps in Nazi Germany. Pursuing the leads he dredged up while investigating the Koch case, Morgen landed in Lublin, Poland.
In Poland, Morgen was received by Camp Commandant Kriminalkommissar Wirth, who guided him through the four major extermination camps of Maidenek, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. Morgen pounced on what he then believed to be a localised crime wave involving - and evidenced by - gas chambers, incineration ovens and mass graves. To his horror, he found out that the orders for the perpetration of the same came directly from Hitler's Chancellery and could not be stopped by the SS Legal Department. However, he took the course of getting as many of the villains punished as was possible and succeeded in prosecuting a few top officials in Maidenek for what were termed 'arbitrary killings'. His policy, in his own words, was to take a 'practical route to justice' by 'removing from this system of destruction the leaders and important elements through the means offered by the system itself'.
By early 1944, he started investigating Höss, the Commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp. He and his team were subjected to the tactics of terror that the Nazis had refined to a fine art. One of Morgen's deputies, Hauptscharführer Gerhard Putsch, vanished without a trace and the hut in which Morgen's files were housed was burnt to the ground. However, he managed to prosecute several high ranking Nazis like Maximllian Grabner, Alex Piorkowski, Hans Horite and Herman Florstedt.
At this point, Morgen realised that he had to take up the issue of the mass murders with Himmler himself if he were to have any chance of stopping them. He managed to wrangle an interview with Himmler with the help of the Chief Justice of the SS Court, but was foiled at the last minute as he was turned away from the Reichsführer's anteroom, where he was waiting for the meeting.
Morgen did not give up, and following his 'practical route to justice' policy, brought 800 cases of corruption and murder to trial and managed to obtain at least 200 convictions. His actions were certainly instrumental in the destruction of the camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec by the Nazis themselves.
The End of the Battle
The enormity of the results of his activities caused reverberations in the Nazi hierarchy that reached Hitler himself, and in the early spring of 1944 Morgen was given direct orders from Hitler's office commanding him to cease and desist, at the very point he was preparing to launch a major investigation into Auschwitz.
After the war, the Allies made good use of Morgen's investigations to prosecute the Nazi war criminals and his presence in the court was invaluable for several cases. However, he refused to testify against Ilse Koch, Karl Koch's wife, as he did not have any concrete proof that she committed any of the alleged crimes against camp inmates, though he did believe that she was guilty. For that, he was violently intimidated by agents of the Allies and was threatened extradition to the Soviets. But the man who stood up to Nazi thugs at the height of their power was not to be swayed by agents of the great democracies and was let go and allowed to settle down in peace.
Morgen practised law in West Germany and died in 1976.
- Adolf Hitler, John Toland, Doubleday and Company, 1976
- The NIZKOR Project
- Encyclopaedia of the Third Reich, Louis L Snyder, Wordsworth Editions