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Saturday, 7 June 2014

Beast of Belsen was an "awfully nice chap"



(L. to R.) Josef Mengele, Rudolf Hoess, Josef Kramer, and Anton Thumann


KRAMER AN EXTREMELY NICE FELLOW"
"Kramer [commandant of the Belsen camp] was an extremely nice fellow," said Colonel T. M. Backhouse, chief prosecutor in the Belsen trial, speaking at Altrincham last night(.) "It never occurred to him that he was doing wrong in obeying orders. He knew he was going to hang, and never thought the trial was anything but a show, but he was only too pleased to help in any way he could.
"He was about the only one of the 45 prisoners against whom there was no indivudal act of cruelty proved. He had a couple of small children who worshipped him. He was an ordinary decent normal man caught up in the Nazi system."
The Manchester Guardian, Friday, February 22, 1946, p. 8.




To the Editor of the Manchester Guardian
Sir.—My attention has been drawn to reports in a number of papers this morning of certain phrases which I used when addressing the Altrincham and Sale Discussion Group last night. Had I been aware that the speech was to be reported, I should have been careful to choose words which could not be misconstrued if portions of the speech were made published out of their context to persons who had not been present.
It is true that I said that Kramer was originally a decent man, but if this phrase had been reported in its context it would have been clear that I was emphasising the danger of the system in which a man could be so caught up and by which his mind could be so twisted and warped that he would blindly accept orders which normally would have been utterly repugnant to him. I continued: "Kramer was hopelessly wrong in assuming that he had to accept such orders, and the danger of the Nazis system is that any decent man could be so regiment."
I am anxious that no one should receive the impression that I in any way expressed the view that Kramer was other than a wholesale murderer and properly found guilty of ill-treatment and murder in its foulest form.—
Yours, &c.,
T. M. BACKHOUSE
Manchester, February 22.
The Manchester Guardian, Saturday, February 23, 1946, p. 4.




How I Came To Speak About Kramer
—Col. T. M. Backhouse
COLONEL T. M. BACHOUSE, chief prosecutor in the Belsen Trials, and a member of a well-known Blackburn legal family, is convinced that Kramer, the "Beast of Belsen," was, at heart, an "awfully nice chap." He made this statement at a meeting of the Altrincham and Sale Discussion Group last night.
Speaking by phone from Manchester to-day, Colonel Backhouse said he had no desire to retract anything he said at the meeting, but complained that the salient point of his speech had been omitted from the reports in some morning papers.
"A DECENT TYPE"
"I shall maintain that he was a decent type of fellow. It never occurred to him that he was doing wrong in obeying his orders. He knew he was going to hand, and never thought the trial was anything but a show, but he was only too pleased to help in any way he could.
"He was about the only one of the 45 prisoners against whom there was no individual act of cruelty proved. He had a couple of small children who worshipped him.
VICTIM OF SYSTEM
"But the point I did make," added Colonel Bachhouse, "is that Kramer is typical of the men who were turned into Huns by the Nazi system. This is the sort of system we should fight against — the system that insists on our obeying orders whereas we should think for ourselves.
"As I say. I do not wish to retract anything. I was assured that there were no reporters present at the meeting, and although I should not have changed the substance of my speech, I might have been more careful in selecting words.
"I understand they are trying to get a Discussion Group going in Altrincham and they asked me to go along and help them. Naturally I selected a provocative subject to start a discussion and I seem to have succeeded.
The Lancashire Daily Post, Friday, February 22, 1946, p. 4.



From: Brigader H. Shapcott, C.B.E.,

M.C.MD/JAG/FS/22/67

Office of : 
The Judge Advocate General,
6, Spring Gardens,
Cockspur Street,
London, S.W.1.

8th March 1946.

Dear [Lt-col. R.H. Wheatley]
You will remember you spoke to me about a report in the Daily Mail, I think it must have been on 22nd February, concerning some remarks stated to have been made by Colonel Backhouse relating to the Belsen trial. I have mislaid my cutting from the Daily Mail for the moment. However, on Backhouse coming to this office last week-end I spoke to him about the matter and conveyed to him in no unmeasured terms my opinion of the whole business and the displeasure we felt about it. He, however, referred me to other reports, copies of which I enclose, namely, the Daily Herald Manchester Edition of 22nd February and the London Edition of the same paper of the same date[*] and of a letter he had sent to the Manchester Guardian which was published in the edition of 23rd February.
I think these cuttings more or lees explain the position and Backhouse assures me that all he was trying to say was that Kramer ordinarily was a decent sort of fellow who had been caught up in the Nazi system and was carrying out his orders under that system willy nilly; in other words he had no option of saying whether he approved them or not. 
Perhaps you will let me know if there is anything else I can do in the matter. 
Yours  

Lt-col. R.H. Wheatley,
A.G.3.(a),
War Office,
LONDON, S.W.1.


* I won't be able to get hold of either of these newspapers until autumn 2014, when the British Library Newsroom will be fully operational. 


UK NA: WO 311/198, Shapcott to Wheatley, March 8, 1946




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