Biography of Franz Stangl

Commandant of the Treblinka Death Camp

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Franz Stangl with other Nazis. Photographer Unknown

Franz Stangl was an Austrian Nazi who served as director of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps in Poland during World War Two. Under his direction, hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were gassed and buried in mass graves. After the war, he fled Europe, first to Syria and then to Brazil. In 1967, he was tracked down by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and extradited to Germany. There he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He died in 1971.

Stangl Before the War

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. This was a Nazi program designed to improve the “master race” by weeding out the infirm. Germans and Austrian citizens who were deemed unworthy were euthanized: these included those born with birth defects, the mentally ill, alcoholics, those with Down’s syndrome and other “defective” civilians. The prevailing theory was that these people were draining the resources of their societies and polluting the Aryan gene pool.

Stangl was assigned to the Hartheim Euthanasia Center near Linz, Austria. There, he proved that he had the proper combination of attention to detail, organizational skill and absolute indifference to the suffering of those he deemed “inferior.” Although Aktion T4 was suspended after indignation from German and Austrian citizens, Stangl’s skills were needed elsewhere.

Stangl at Sobibor

Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and soon overran the overmatched Polish defenses. Once the Nazis were in control, they had to figure out how to “solve the problem” of the millions of Polish Jews. Germany built three death camps in eastern Poland: Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec. Stangl was assigned as chief administrator of the Sobibor death camp, under construction in early 1942. After the camp was inaugurated in May of that year, Stangl served as camp director until his transfer in August. Trains carrying Jews from all over Eastern Europe arrived at the camp, where they were systematically stripped, shaved and sent into the gas chambers to die. It is estimated that roughly 100,000 Jews died during Stangl’s tenure at Sobibor.

Stangl at Treblinka

Sobibor was running very smoothly and efficiently, but the Treblinka camp was not. In August 1942, Stangl was sent to Treblinka to make it more efficient. As the Nazi hierarchy had hoped, Stangl turned the inefficient camp around. When he arrived, he found a hell-hole with corpses strewn about, little discipline among the soldiers and inefficient killing methods. He ordered the place cleaned up and even made the train station attractive so that incoming Jewish passengers would not realize what was going on until it was too late.

He ordered 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 given the Iron Cross.

Italy and Austria

In fact, Stangl was so efficient that he put himself out of work. By the middle of 1943, most of the Jews in Poland were either already dead or in hiding. The death camps were no longer needed. Anticipating the international outrage, the Nazis bulldozed the camps and tried to hide the evidence as best they could. Stangl and others like him were sent to the Italian front in 1943: it may have been a way to try and kill them off. Stangl survived Italy, however, and returned to Austria in 1945. He was there when the war ended.

Flight to Brazil

As an SS officer, Stangl attracted the attention of the Allies after the war and spent two years in an American internment camp. No one seemed to realize who he was, however, and 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. But by the early 1960’s, it had to have been clear to him 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, eleven 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. Although he felt safe in Brazil, Stangl must have been aware that people were looking for him.

Stangl and Wiesenthal

The man searching for Stangl was Simon Wiesenthal, the famous concentration camp survivor and Nazi hunter. Wiesenthal had a long list of Nazi war criminals he wanted brought to justice, and Stangl’s name was near the top of the list. In 1964, Wiesenthal got tips 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 for his information: one penny for every Jew killed at Treblinka and Sobibor.

Wiesenthal estimated that 700,000 Jews had died there, 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’s office 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 Franz 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. Because of the complicated court case – most of his crimes had taken place in wartime Poland and in the end he was charged with the deaths of 1,200,000 people – it took German authorities three years to bring him to trial.

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: Stangl said 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, however, 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, to be dealt with as such. 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: 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. Although he wore a whip while at the camps, he apparently seldom used it (although to be fair, very few eyewitnesses survived the Sobibor and Treblinka camps). But there is no denying 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 (a claim that is somewhat questionable). 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.