By Manuel Bolz and Marie Panten
An excursion to Itzehoe
On 19 October 2021, our alarm clock rang at 4:00 a.m. The reason for our early wake-up call was to attend the start of the trial by the Itzehoe Regional Court against 97-year-old Irmgard Furchner, a former secretary and stenographer at the concentration camp Stutthof. Due to its historical relevance, there was considerable media interest in the trial. Unfortunately, there were only 36 seats available for the public due to the pandemic restrictions.
We attended the court case due to our studies at the University of Hamburg. In the winter semester of 2021/2022, Prof. Dr. Ulf Schmidt, Dr. Kate Docking, and Dr. William Studdert offered a course on ‘Medicine and Dictatorship in 20th Century Germany’. One aspect of the course explores how gender has framed the themes of post-war justice and the perpetrators of Nazi crimes. As such, we were greatly interested in attending the trial opening to see how these historical themes are still relevant to the present.
Fortunately, we were the first people on site at about 8:00 am. As the sun rose, more and more people came to the gates of the makeshift court, which was held in a requisitioned warehouse. The police were present throughout and even had to intervene when two people shouted at each other and their confrontation became physical. Protestors and activitsts held home-made posters and banners to show solidarity with the victims of the National Socialist regime, and the relatives of the victims. They warned against a repetition of the crimes committed during the Third Reich.
Around 10:30 am, after security checks, we took our seats in the public area in front of the plexiglass windows. Next to us was the area for the press, which faced the official court space. Opposite the presiding and associate judges, the jurors, the proctollants and the public prosecutor, sat the secondary prosecution, which represents survivors and descendants. To our left was the empty plexiglass box for the defendant, Irmgard Furchner.
We waited anxiously for the trial to begin, which reminded us almost of a theatre play – our gaze directed to the door behind the defendant’s box.
The defendant entered the courtroom in a wheelchair wearing a headscarf, sunglasses, and a surgical mask. We think she covered herself up for embarrassment that she would be seen as ‘representative’ of the National Socialist regime, an argument she made in a letter to the presiding judge before the trial. After the press reporters took their photos, Irmgard Furchner, no longer fearing her face circulating in international media and on the internet as a ‘bad figure’, took off her headscarf, sunglasses and mask. The main hearing was recorded upon request – ‘§ 169 GvG’ for scientific and historical reasons, as the criminal proceedings are important due to their uniqueness. There was tension in the air, especially when the Opening Statements and the indictment were read.
Mrs. Furchner has been prominent in the international press because, desiring not to appear in the criminal proceedings, as she made clear in a letter to the presiding judge, she fled shortly before the start of the trial at the end of September. What followed her dramatic escaspe was a series of high-profile events. After an arrest warrant had been issued, she was found on the streets of Hamburg, then spent some time in a Lübeck prison before temporarily being released back to her nursing home. Since then she has been wearing an ankle bracelet to ensure that she does not attempt to abscond again.
The details of her indictment are as follows: she worked from June 1943 to April 1945 in the commandant’s office of the Stutthof concentration camp, Department 1 – the Central Office. Her duties included filing, recording, sorting and preparing all letters from the camp commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Werner Hoppe. She is charged with 11,412 counts of aiding and abetting insidious and cruel murder and 18 counts of aiding and abetting attempted murder. In the mid 1950s, she testified against Hoppe. He and two other perpetrators were then sentenced to nine years in prison for aiding and abetting murder. However, these statements may not be used in the current trial.
In the Stutthof concentration camp where Furchner worked, more than 65,000 camp inmates were brutally murdered by neck shots, hanging, gassing with Zyklon B, torture, freezing, starvation, and forced labor.
According to the defense attorney of Irmgard Furchner, who herself did not speak during the trial apart from confirming her personal statements in the start of the trial. He said that Mrs. Furchner a) did not want to counteract the clarification of the injustice and violence of the National Socialist regime, b) did not want to solaridarize with National Socialists and c) and also did not want to deny the Holocaust. She has never been a convinced National Socialist. She is not aware of any personal guilt.
The opening statements provoked some questions for us: did the defendant know what was happening at Stutthof concentration camp, from her own observation but also from the documents in the correspondence which she worked with? How much personal responsibility does Mrs. Furchner bear?
During the trial, the prosecution filed a motion to have the former Stutthof concentration camp visited in order to demonstrate that the defendant saw the gas chambers every day on her way to work.After the trial, activists stood in the streets holding up their posters and placards. Lawyers of the joint prosecution and some spectators gave interviews. The case continues.
Manuel Bolz, B.A. is a Masters student Cultural Anthropology at the Institute for Anthropological Studies in Culture and History, Department for Cultural Studies and Arts, University of Hamburg.
Marie Panten, B.A. is a Masters student History at the Department for History, University of Hamburg.