Franz Paul Stangl (26 March 1908 – 28 June 1971) was an Austrian-born SS commander of Nazi Germany. He was the commandant of the Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps during the Operation Reinhard phase of the Holocaust. He was arrested in Brazil in 1967, extradited and tried in West Germany for the mass murder of 900,000 people, and in 1970 was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty, life imprisonment. He died of heart failure six months later.
Early life and Nazi affiliations
Stangl was born in 1908 in Altmünster, located in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. He was the son of a night-watchman and had such an emotionally distressing relationship with his father that he was deeply frightened by and hated the sight of the elder Stangl’s Habsburg Dragoons uniform. Stangl claimed his father died of malnutrition in 1916. To help support his family Franz learned to play the zither and earned money giving zither lessons. Stangl completed his public schooling in 1923.
In his teens he secured an apprenticeship as a weaver, qualifying as a master weaver in 1927. Concerned that this trade offered few opportunities for advancement – and having observed the poor health of his co-workers – Stangl sought a new career. He moved to Innsbruck in 1930 and applied for an appointment in the Austrian federal police. Stangl later suggested that he liked the security and cleanliness that the police uniforms represented to him. He was accepted in early 1931 and trained for two years at the federal police academy in Linz.
Stangl became a member of the NSDAP (commonly referred to in English as the Nazi Party) in 1931, an illegal association for an Austrian police officer at that time. Post-war, he denied having been a Nazi since 1931 and claimed that he had enrolled as member of the party only to avoid arrest following the Anschluss of Austria into Nazi Germany in May 1938. Records suggest that Stangl contributed to a Nazi aid fund but he disavowed knowing about the intended party purpose of the fund. Stangl had Nazi Party number 6,370,447 and SS number 296,569.
In 1935, Stangl was accepted into the Kriminalpolizei as detective in the Austrian town of Wels. After Austria’s Anschluss Stangl was assigned to the Schutzpolizei (which was taken over by the Gestapo) in Linz, where he was posted to the Jewish Bureau (German: Judenreferat). Stangl joined the SS in May 1938. He would ultimately reach the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain).
T-4 Euthanasia Programme
After the onset of World War II, in early 1940, Stangl was instructed to report for work at the Public Service Foundation for Institutional Care (Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Anstaltspflege), a front organization of the T-4 Euthanasia Program.
Stangl purposely solicited for a job in the newly created T-4 program in order to escape difficulties with his boss in the Linz Gestapo. He traveled to the RSHA in Berlin, where he was received by Paul Werner, who offered Stangl a job as supervisor in charge of security at a T4 killing facility, and in the language commonly used during recruitment, described Action T4 as a “humanitarian” effort that was “essential, legal, and secret”.
Next Stangl met with Viktor Brack, who offered him a choice of work between Hartheim and Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centres; naturally, Stangl picked Hartheim, which was near Linz.
Through a direct order from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler issued in November 1940, Stangl became the deputy office manager (Police Superintendent) of the T-4 Euthanasia Program at Hartheim Euthanasia Centre, and in late summer 1941 at Bernburg Euthanasia Centre, where people with mental and physical disabilities, as well as political prisoners, were sent to be killed.
At Hartheim, Stangl served under Christian Wirth as assistant supervisor in charge of security. When Wirth was succeeded by Franz Reichleitner, Stangl stayed on as Reichleitner’s deputy. During his brief posting to Bernburg Euthanasia Centre Stangl reorganized the office at that killing facility.
In March 1942, Stangl was given a choice to either return to the Linz Gestapo or be transferred to Lublin for work in Operation Reinhard. Stangl accepted the posting to Lublin in the General Government, where he would manage Operation Reinhard under Odilo Globocnik.
Stangl was appointed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler to be the first commandant of Sobibór extermination camp. Stangl was Sobibór’s commandant from 28 April until the end of August 1942, at the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. He claimed that Odilo Globocnik initially suggested that Sobibór was merely a supply camp for the army, and that the true nature of the camp became known to him only when he himself discovered a gas chamber hidden in the woods. Globocnik told him that if the Jews “were not working hard enough” he was fully permitted to kill them and that Globocnik would send “new ones”.
Stangl studied the camp operations and management of Bełżec, which had already commenced extermination activity. He then accelerated the completion of Sobibór. Around that time Stangl also had further dealings with Wirth, who was running extermination camps at Bełżec and Chelmno. Between 16–18 May 1942, Sobibór became fully operational. Around 100,000 Jews are believed to have been killed there while Stangl was the administrator until the furnaces broke down in October, by which time Stangl had left.
Stangl was succeeded as Sobibór commandant by his Hartheim Euthanasia Center colleague, Franz Reichleitner.
On 28 August 1942, Odilo Globocnik ordered Stangl to become Kommandant at the newly opened but disorganized death camp, Treblinka, then under the incompetent command of Irmfried Eberl. Globocnik trusted that Stangl could restore order at Treblinka since Stangl had a reputation as a highly competent administrator and people manager with an excellent grasp of detail.
Stangl assumed command of Treblinka on 1 September 1942. Stangl wanted his camp to look attractive, so he ordered the paths paved and flowers planted along the sides of Seidel Street, near camp headquarters and SS living quarters. Despite being directly responsible for the camp’s operations, Stangl said he limited his contact with Jewish prisoners as much as possible. Stangl rarely intervened with unusually cruel acts (other than gassing) perpetrated by his subordinate officers at the camp. He usually wore a white uniform and carried a whip, which caused prisoners to nickname him the “White Death”.
He later claimed (while in prison) that his dedication had nothing to do with ideology or hatred of Jews. He said he matter-of-factly viewed the prisoners as material objects rather than people, including their extermination: “That was my profession. I enjoyed it. It fulfilled me. And yes, I was ambitious about that, I won’t deny it.”
Stangl accepted and grew accustomed to the killings, perceiving prisoners not as humans but merely as “cargo” that must be destroyed. Stangl accepted the extermination of the Jews as a fact.
At about this time, Stangl began drinking heavily.
He is quoted as saying:
To tell the truth, one did become used to it… they were cargo. I think it started the day I first saw the Totenlager [extermination area] in Treblinka. I remember Wirth standing there, next to the pits full of black-blue corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity — it could not have. It was a mass — a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said ‘What shall we do with this garbage?’ I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo… I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the “tube” — they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips…
In September 1942, Stangl supervised the building of new, larger gas chambers to augment the existing gas chambers. The new gas chambers became operational in early autumn 1942.
It is believed that these death chambers were capable of killing 3,000 people in two hours, and 12,000 to 15,000 victims easily every day, with a maximum capacity of 22,000 deaths in 24 hours. According to Jankiel Wiernik: “When the new gas chambers were completed, the Hauptsturmführer [Stangl] came and remarked to the SS men who were with him: ‘Finally the Jewish city is ready’ (German: Endlich ist die Judenstadt fertig)”.
Erich Bauer would later remark:
I estimate that the number of Jews gassed at Sobibor was about 350,000. In the canteen at Sobibor I once overheard a conversation between Karl Frenzel, Franz Stangl and Gustav Wagner.
They were discussing the number of victims in the extermination camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor and expressed their regret that Sobibor “came last” in the competition.
In August 1943, along with Globocnik, Stangl was transferred to Trieste, where he helped organize the campaign against Yugoslav partisans and local Jews. Due to illness, he returned to Vienna in early 1945, where he served in the “Alpine Fortress” (Alpenfestung).
At the end of the war, Stangl fled without concealing his name. He was detained by the American Army in 1945 and was briefly imprisoned pending investigation in Linz, Austria in 1947.
Stangl was suspected of complicity in the T-4 euthanasia programme.
On 30 May 1948, he escaped to Italy with his colleague from Sobibór, SS sergeant Gustav Wagner. Austrian Roman Catholic Bishop Alois Hudal, a Nazi sympathizer, forced in 1952 to resign by the Vatican, helped him to escape through a “ratline” and to reach Syria using a Red Cross passport.
Stangl was joined by his wife and family and lived in Syria for three years before they moved to Brazil in 1951. After years of other jobs, he found work at the Volkswagen plant in São Bernardo do Campo with the help of friends, still using his own name.
Arrest, trial, and death
Although his role in the mass murder of men, women, and children was known to the Austrian authorities a warrant was not issued for Stangl’s arrest until 1961. Despite being registered under his real name at the Austrian consulate in São Paulo, it took another six years before he was tracked down by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and arrested by Brazilian federal police on 28 February 1967.
He never used an assumed name during his escape, and it is not clear why it took so long to apprehend him. After extradition to West Germany by Brazil, he was tried for the deaths of around 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: “My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty…”
Stangl’s own attempt at justification of his murderous actions as being non-criminal in the face of German law (or so he thought) was subsequently quoted by Arad:
What I had to do while I continued my efforts to get out was to limit my own actions to what I — in my own conscience — could answer for. At police training school they taught us that the definition of a crime must meet four requirements: there has to be a subject, an object, an action and intent. If any of these four elements is missing, then we are not dealing with a punishable offence… I could apply this to my own situation — if the subject was the government, the “object” the Jews, and the action the gassing, I could tell myself that for me, the fourth element, “intent”, (I called it free will) was missing.
Philosopher John Kekes discussed Stangl and the degree of his responsibility for war crimes in chapter 4 of his book, The Roots of Evil. The Schwurgericht Düsseldorf court found Stangl guilty on 22 October 1970, and sentenced him to maximum penalty, life imprisonment. While in prison, Stangl was interviewed extensively by Gitta Sereny for a study of him published as Into that Darkness.
She wrote, quoting him:
“My conscience is clear about what I did, myself”, he said, in the same stiffly tone he had used countless times at his trial, and in the past weeks, when we had always come back to this subject, over and over again. But this time I said nothing. He paused and waited, but the room remained silent. “I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself,” he said, with a different, less incisive emphasis, and waited again – for a long time. For the first time, in all these many days, I had given him no help. There was no more time. He gripped the table with both hands as if he was holding on to it. “But I was there”, he said then, in a curiously dry and tired tone of resignation. These few sentences had taken almost half an hour to pronounce. “So yes,” he said finally, very quietly, “in reality I share the guilt… Because my guilt… my guilt… only now in these talks… now that I have talked about it all for the first time…” He stopped.
In his prison interview with Sereny – she later wrote – Stangl “had pronounced the words ‘my guilt’: but more than the words, the finality of it was in the sagging of his body, and on his face.
After more than a minute he started again, a half-hearted attempt, in a dull voice. ‘My guilt,’ he said, ‘is that I am still here. That is my guilt.'” He died of heart failure nineteen hours after the conclusion of that interview, in Düsseldorf prison on 28 June 1971.