The Rise and Fall of Nazi Officer Franz Stangl

Stangl charged with killing 1.2 million people in Polish death camps

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Franz Stangl with other Nazis. Photographer Unknown

Franz Stangl, nicknamed "The White Death," was an Austrian Nazi who served as director of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps in Poland during World War II. Under his co-direction, it is estimated that more than 1 million people were gassed and buried in mass graves.

After the war, Stangl fled Europe, first to Syria and then to Brazil. In 1967, he was tracked down by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and extradited to Germany, where he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He died from a heart attack in prison in 1971.

Stangl as a Youth

Franz Stangl was born in Altmuenster, Austria, on March 26, 1908. As a young man, he worked in textile factories, which would help him find employment later while on the run. He joined two organizations: the Nazi party and the Austrian police. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the ambitious young policeman joined the Gestapo and soon impressed his superiors with his cold efficiency and willingness to follow orders.

Stangl and Aktion T4

In 1940, Stangl was assigned to Aktion T4, a Nazi program designed to improve the Aryan "master race" gene pool by weeding out the infirm. Stangl was assigned to the Hartheim Euthanasia Center near Linz, Austria.

Germans and Austrian citizens who were deemed unworthy were euthanized, including those born with birth defects, the mentally ill, alcoholics, those with Down’s syndrome and other illnesses.

The prevailing theory was that those with defects were draining the resources from society and polluting the Aryan race.

At Hartheim, Stangl proved that he had the proper combination of attention to detail, organizational skill and absolute indifference to the suffering of those he deemed inferior. Aktion T4 was eventually suspended after indignation from German and Austrian citizens.

Stangl at Sobibor Death Camp

After Germany had invaded Poland, the Nazis had to figure out what to do with the millions of Polish Jews, who were considered subhuman according to the racial policy of Nazi Germany. The Nazis built three death camps in eastern Poland: Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec.

Stangl was assigned as chief administrator of the Sobibor death camp, which was inaugurated in May 1942. Stangl served as camp director until his transfer in August. Trains carrying Jews from all over Eastern Europe arrived at the camp. Train passengers arrived, were systematically stripped, shaved and sent to the gas chambers to die. It is estimated in the three months that Stangl was at Sobibor, 100,000 Jews died under Stangl’s watch.

Stangl at Treblinka Death Camp

Sobibor was running very smoothly and efficiently, but the Treblinka death camp was not. Stangl was reassigned to Treblinka to make it more efficient. As the Nazi hierarchy had hoped, Stangl turned the inefficient camp around.

When he arrived, he found corpses strewn about, little discipline among the soldiers and inefficient killing methods. He ordered the place cleaned up and made the train station attractive so that incoming Jewish passengers would not realize what was going to happen to them until it was too late.

He ordered the construction of new, larger gas chambers and raised the killing capacity of Treblinka to an estimated 22,000 per day. He was so good at his job that he was awarded the honor “Best Camp Commandant in Poland” and awarded the Iron Cross, one of the highest Nazi honors.

Stangl Assigned to Italy and Return to Austria

Stangl was so efficient at administrating the death camps that he put himself out of work. By the middle of 1943, most of the Jews in Poland were either dead or hiding. The death camps were no longer needed.

Anticipating the international outrage to the death camps, the Nazis bulldozed the camps and tried to hide the evidence as best they could.

Stangl and others camp leaders like him were sent to the Italian front in 1943; it was hypothesized that it may have been a way to try and kill them off.

Stangl survived the battles in Italy and returned to Austria in 1945, where he stayed until the war ended.

Flight to Brazil

As an SS officer, the genocidal terror squad of the Nazi Party, Stangl attracted the attention of the Allies after the war and spent two years in an American internment camp. The Americans did not seem to realize who he was. When Austria began to show interest in him in 1947, it was due to his involvement in Aktion T4, not for the horrors that took place in Sobibor and Treblinka.

He escaped in 1948 and made his way to Rome, where pro-Nazi bishop Alois Hudal helped him and his friend Gustav Wagner escape. Stangl first went to Damascus, Syria, where he easily found work in a textile factory. He prospered and was able to send for his wife and daughters. In 1951, the family moved to Brazil and settled in São Paulo.

Turning up the Heat on Stangl

Throughout his travels, Stangl did little to hide his identity. He never used an alias and even registered with the Austrian embassy in Brazil. By the early 1960s, although he felt safe in Brazil, it had to have been clear to Stangl that he was a wanted man.

Fellow Nazi Adolf Eichmann was snatched off a Buenos Aires street in 1960 before being taken to Israel, tried and executed. In 1963, Gerhard Bohne, another former officer associated with Aktion T4, was indicted in Germany; he would eventually be extradited from Argentina. In 1964, 11 men who had worked for Stangl at Treblinka were tried and convicted. One of them was Kurt Franz, who had succeeded Stangl as commander of the camp. 

Nazi Hunter Wiesenthal on the Chase

Simon Wiesenthal, the well-known concentration camp survivor and Nazi hunter, had a long list of Nazi war criminals he wanted to be brought to justice, and Stangl’s name was near the top of the list.

In 1964, Wiesenthal got a tip that Stangl was living in Brazil and working at a Volkswagen factory in São Paulo. According to Wiesenthal, one of the tips came from a former Gestapo officer, who demanded to be paid one penny for every Jew killed at Treblinka and Sobibor.

Wiesenthal estimated that 700,000 Jews had died in those camps, so the total for the tip came to $7,000, payable if and when Stangl was captured. Wiesenthal eventually paid the informant. Another tip to Wiesenthal concerning Stangl’s whereabouts may have come from Stangl’s former son-in-law.

Arrest and Extradition

Wiesenthal pressured Germany to issue a request to Brazil for the arrest and extradition of Stangl. On February 28, 1967, the ex-Nazi was arrested in Brazil as he returned from a bar with his adult daughter. In June, Brazilian courts ruled that he should be extradited and shortly thereafter he was put on a plane for West Germany. It took German authorities three years to bring him to trial. He was charged with the deaths of 1.2 million people.

Trial and Death

Stangl’s trial began on May 13, 1970. The prosecution’s case was well-documented and Stangl did not contest most of the accusations. He instead relied on the same line prosecutors had been hearing since the Nuremberg Trials, that he was only “following orders.” He was convicted on December 22, 1970, of complicity in the deaths of 900,000 people and sentenced to life in prison. He died of a heart attack in prison on June 28, 1971, about six months after his conviction.

Before he died, he gave a long interview to Austrian writer Gitta Sereny. The interview sheds some light on how Stangl was able to commit the atrocities he did. He repeatedly said that his conscience was clear, because he had come to see the endless train cars of Jews as nothing more than cargo. He said he did not hate Jews personally but was proud of the organizational work he had done in the camps.

In the same interview, he mentioned that his former colleague Gustav Wagner was hiding in Brazil. Later, Wiesenthal would track Wagner down and have him arrested, but the Brazilian government never extradited him.  

Unlike some of the other Nazis, Stangl did not appear to relish the killing he oversaw. There are no accounts of him ever murdering anyone personally like fellow camp commander Josef Schwammberger or Auschwitz “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele. He wore a whip while at the camps, which he apparently seldom used it, although there were very few eyewitnesses who survived the Sobibor and Treblinka camps to verify it. There is no doubt, however, that Stangl’s institutionalized slaughter ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Wiesenthal claimed to have brought 1,100 former Nazis to justice. Stangl was by far the “biggest fish” that the famous Nazi hunter ever caught.

Sources

Simon Wiesenthal Archive. Franz Stangl.

Walters, Guy. Hunting Evil: the Nazi War Criminals who Escaped and the Quest to Bring them to Justice. 2010: Broadway Books.