The gate in Birkenau. Photographer Stanisław Mucha, courtesy Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
On 20 January 1942 fifteen top Nazi officials met at a villa, on the shore of Berlin’s lake Wannsee, to plan the Holocaust. Thirty years later one of them, Georg Leibbrandt, went on holiday to America.
Newly published documents, including declassified CIA files, and the first interview with Jeffrey Mausner, the now-retired US Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyer responsible for investigating Leibbrandt in 1979, reveal new details about his role in the Holocaust and how he became the highest ranking Nazi ever to visit the USA.
Leibbrandt attended the Wannsee Conference alongside more notorious war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann. According to the minutes of the meeting, it was called to discuss the “organisational, factual and material interests in relation to the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.”
Leibbrandt was there as the second most senior official in the Ostministerium, the Ministry for occupied territories in the East. Born in what is now Ukraine, he was seen as an expert on the various nationalities found in the east. Before the war he had documented hundreds of German-speaking colonies in Russia, and in the post-war period he kept in touch with American genealogists keen to trace their roots back to those settlements. In addition to meeting with a notorious American holocaust denier, his trip to the US was partly an attempt to reclaim his academic collection, which had been seized by American forces.
By late 1941, when Leibbrandt received his invitation to the Wannsee conference, mass shootings were already commonplace in occupied Soviet territories. The Nazis had also used gas sporadically, particularly against the inmates of psychiatric hospitals. However, the SS organisers of the Wannsee conference wanted to move from mass murder to genocide – the deliberate killing of all Europe’s Jews.
The Wannsee minutes list the 11 million remaining Jews in each European country, including 330,000 in England, and describe how, “In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east.”
“It was shocking that Leibbrandt had been in the United States,” said Jeffrey Mausner. “Not only that he was at a senior level, but that he was directly involved in the final solution.” During a phone interview Mausner, now in his 70s and living in Los Angeles, still sounds as outraged as he did when he first learned about Leibbrandt. Back in 1979 Mausner was a new recruit at the DOJ’s Office of Special Investigations, a small Nazi-hunting team formed that year after public outcry about Nazi concentration camp guards setting up home in American suburbs.
The 1974 film Marathon Man, a paranoid thriller starring Dustin Hoffman, captured the mood. The film is best known for its scene in which a Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier keeps drilling into Hoffman’s teeth, asking “Is it safe? Is it safe?” Yet an equally horrifying moment comes when a concentration camp victim, a tattoo clearly visible on his arm, spots his torturer on the streets of New York’s diamond district.
Leibbrandt wasn’t a camp guard or torturer. Hannah Arendt, who reported on Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem, coined the term Schreibtischtäter, desk-murderer. They may not have pulled a trigger or manned a watchtower, but the desk-murderers wrote the policies which defined who was a Jew when considering the offspring of mixed marriages, they organized the trains to take Europe’s Jews to Auschwitz, and they settled bureaucratic turf disputes in favour of genocide. Leibbrandt was one of these men.
When Mausner now reads his 1979 report justifying the revocation of Leibbrandt’s visa he is shocked by the evidence he cited:
“Looking at it now, it’s even more shocking that the Germans never prosecuted him. The smoking gun. And even though there’s this use of the euphemism ‘solution of the Jewish question’ that’s all part of this. He knew very well what “solution of the Jewish question” was. This statement is in October 1942 – Wannsee was January 1942. This is basically him saying I intend to bring about the murder of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Wow.”
Before the war Leibbrandt, an ethnic German who grew up near Odessa, had been an academic, publishing seven volumes mapping German-speaking colonies across Russia. Stalin’s brutal resettlement of ethnic Germans, including members of his own family, underpinned Leibrandt’s anti-Bolshevism, which eased his ideological path into National Socialism in 1933.
After the war Leibbrandt remained engaged in historical and genealogical research, frequently liaising with groups like the American Historical Society Of Germans From Russia.
In 1974, by now in his mid-70s, he visited the US with his son, partly in an attempt to reunite his academic papers, seized by American forces at the end of war. According to academic Samuel Zinner, in Washington Leibbrandt met with Professor Austin App, a holocaust denier whose pamphlet, ‘The Six Million Swindle,’ was banned from sale on Amazon earlier this year. After visits to Cleveland, Ohio and Niagara Falls to see his brother Gottlieb, also a former Nazi, Leibbrandt returned home.
Leibbrandt never faced justice before he died in 1982. After the Nazi defeat he was detained by British troops but, despite the urging of the World Jewish Congress, he wasn’t put on trial at Nuremberg, instead appearing as a witness.
Mausner believes the decision by German post-war prosecutors not to try Leibbrandt was “unforgiveable.”
“Why, at this time, were they not interested in prosecuting a high level mass murderer, a Nazi? I think they just didn’t care that much about the Holocaust. I think that there may have been people still in the government who had been involved with the Nazis. Basically they really didn’t care very much,” said Mausner.
Perhaps the closest Leibbrandt came to a reckoning came from his son, Hansgeorg. According to his biographer Martin Munke, in the 1960s Leibbrandt slapped his son after he confronted his father, calling him a desk-murderer.
Mausner is still frustrated that all he was able to do was cancel Leibbrandt’s visa, and revoke the US citizenship of camp guards. “These people committed some of the worst crimes ever committed. You would spend years prosecuting them. And then the punishment did not at all fit the crimes. But at least we did something. Which is more than most countries did.”
“The people who worked on it were really serious about it. We worked really hard on it and we used whatever we had to try to get some justice. The laws just weren’t there, they weren’t commensurate in any way with what they did.”
“So that was that.”