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Wolff, Karl

Karl Wolff
Karl Wolff

Karl Wolff (13 May 1900 – 17 July 1984), SS Obergruppenführer, was Heinrich Himmler’s chief of staff and his liaison officer to Adolf Hitler. As such, he had access to all the material crossing Himmler’s desk. Toward the end of the war, on Himmler’s initiative, Wolff negotiated an early surrender of the German forces in Italy to the U.S. Forces. Probably as a reward for this, Wolff did not get prosecuted by the Allies. However, the West-German authorities were not a part of this background deal, so in 1962, they started prosecuting Wolff for his alleged involvement in the deportation of 300,000 Italian Jews.

The case that unfolded at the Munich Jury Court in 1964 did not quite go the way the prosecution and the powers behind it had planned. Wolff steadfastly insisted that he knew nothing about any systematic exterminations happening during the war. The prosecution’s case rested entirely on circumstantial evidence. Some 90 witnesses testified, but only three of them incriminated Wolff. While the three professional judges, bending to political pressure, were ready to sentence Wolff anyway, the six jury members were not.

Deliberations behind closed doors went on for eight days, during which the professional judges pointed out the political dimension of the case, since the entire world was watching and expecting a merciless guilty verdict. The slim majority of just one jury member eventually agreed to a 15-year prison term, but only after they had been promised that Wolff would be pardoned and released from prison after a year or two.

However, when one of the jury members, Norbert Kellnberger, found out in 1969 that Wolff was still in prison, he started stirring things up, and eventually managed to get Wolff released in 1971 “for health reasons.” Kellnberger went public with this story in 1974, which was picked up and reported by some German media.

This case shows how post-war trials against alleged National-Socialist perpetrators bear all the hallmarks of show trials: the alleged crime itself cannot be challenge, and guilty verdicts for the claimed perpetrators are foregone conclusions, a few exceptions here and there notwithstanding.

(For more details on this, see Rudolf 2023, pp. 425f.)

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