Georg Konrad Morgen was the first man to prosecute commandants of the Nazi concentration camps, but he wasn’t an officer of war-crimes tribunals. He was himself a German SS officer, and he prosecuted his fellow SS officers in SS courts during the Second World War. Morgen charged them not with crimes against humanity but with ordinary crimes of corruption and murder. While investigating those crimes, he came upon the machinery of mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau and, recoiling in horror, he asked himself what he could do about it.
But, as he explained after the war, that machinery was set in motion by Hitler, whose will was law in the Führer-State: mass murder had become ‘technically legal’. All he could do, he said, was to forge ahead with prosecuting the perpetrators for ‘illegal’ killings and lesser crimes, in the hope of somehow throwing sand in the works. He even sought an arrest warrant for Adolf Eichmann – but only for embezzling a pouch of diamonds.
Morgen was a judge in the SS Judiciary, a system of courts that tried cases against members of the Nazi Waffen-SS, much as military courts try cases against members of the military. In 1941 and the first half of 1942, he investigated financial corruption by members of the SS in occupied Poland. In July 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, chose Morgen to investigate SS corruption in the concentration camps. The trail of those investigations led him to the threshold of the gas chambers.
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This article was originally published in Aeon Magazine.