The fate of perpetrators, like that of survivors, has remained an issue of great relevance long after the war. In November 1945, the trial of 23 senior Nazi leaders opened in Nuremberg in front of the International Military Tribunal established by the Allies. One of the defendants was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who from 1943 had been the head of the Security Police, an organisation which played a central role in the Holocaust. When Kaltenbrunner testified in April 1946, he was repeatedly asked about his knowledge of and attitude to the Holocaust.

I had no knowledge of Hitler's order to Heydrich regarding the final solution of the Jewish problem at the time I took up my office...

On the basis of all information which accumulated during the summer and autumn of 1943, including reports from enemy broadcasts and foreign news, I came to the conviction that the statement regarding the destruction of Jews was true, and that, thus convinced, I immediately went to see Hitler, and the next day Himmler, and complained to both of them saying that I could not for one single minute support any such action...

I repeatedly asked to join troops at the front, but the most burning question which I personally had to decide was: Will conditions be thus improved, alleviated? Or will anything be changed? Or is it my personal duty in this position to do everything necessary to change all these sharply criticized conditions?

Upon repeated refusals to my request to be detailed to the front, I had no other alternative than to try myself to alter [the] system... All that I could do was to try to modify these methods while striving to have them abolished altogether...

When I considered the possibility of exerting again and again influence on Hitler and Himmler and other persons, my conscience would not allow me to leave my position. I thought it my duty to take, personally, a stand against wrong.

The court was not convinced by Kaltenbrunner’s claims that he had opposed the Holocaust and had only stayed in office to try to stop it: he was sentenced to death and executed in October 1946. However, many other perpetrators used a similar defence in trials in the years that followed and were often believed by courts, especially in West Germany where most were given lenient sentences or acquitted. In fact, the majority of perpetrators never faced justice; thousands are still alive today.

Photo: Ernst Kaltenbrunner pleading ‘not guilty’ at Nuremberg, 1945; National Archives and Records Administration, College Park (public domain)

Testimony: Trials of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, XI (International Military Tribunal, 1947)