(Un)tried Crimes. The Approach of the Law Enforcement Agencies and the Judiciary of the Federal Republic of Germany to German Crimes in Poland (1939–1945) - Instytut Pileckiego

(Un)tried Crimes. The Approach of the Law Enforcement Agencies and the Judiciary of the Federal Republic of Germany to German Crimes in Poland (1939–1945)

The subject of the research undertaken is the approach of the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary of the Federal Republic of Germany to German crimes committed in occupied Poland (1939–1945).

Due to their systemic ineffectiveness, the criminal investigations and proceedings conducted in the FRG have failed to exhaust the principle of retribution. Numerous perpetrators have gone unpunished. The lack of interest in the FRG in prosecuting those guilty of the crimes was impacted by both the defense strategies adopted by the accused, and systemic mechanisms for not seeking justice. Proceedings were discontinued, perpetrators were acquitted, and lenient sentences were given, while preparatory proceedings were often suspended.

An important objective of the project will be to provide a fuller presentation of the perspective of witnesses and the Polish experience of the Second World War, as recorded in the evidentiary materials of crimes committed in Poland and the testimony of witnesses given in the trials of Nazi criminals before Allied tribunals (1945–1949) and the courts of the FRG. These have not yet been analyzed as a whole and are unavailable to the Polish reader, yet they may contribute immensely to our understanding of the mechanisms and course of German crimes. A preliminary survey of source materials will serve as a basis for the elaboration of scholarly monographs and articles that will be available in both printed and digital form. These will provide answers to the research questions, namely: 1) how was a reckoning of the crimes from the period of the Second World War arrived at in the FRG?; 2) what were the reasons for the systemic ineffectiveness of the German judiciary when faced with the perpetrators of crimes committed in Poland?; 2) what was the impact of the political situation in the FRG and relations between the FRG and Poland on the prosecution and punishment of war criminals?; 3) what were the reasons for the acquittal of perpetrators, and what role did the argument that German crimes were a reaction to the Polish propensity for violence against the pre-war German minority play in this process?; 4) what new elements do materials from West German trials of war criminals contribute to the assessment of the Polish experience of the Second World War?

The topic addressed in the project is still poorly researched and has little presence in Polish topical literature. It requires thorough archival research and a completely reworked presentation that will take into account both Polish and German sources, and the progress of research in three fields that are of crucial importance for our understanding of the Second World War: history, social memory and law. Despite considerable interest in Germany in the history of the trials of Nazi criminals and a considerable number of publications, the issue of Polish witnesses and crimes committed in Poland remains outside the mainstream of study.

Research into these difficult and contentious matters is essential for shaping and developing the Polish identity, the memory of the Second World War, and Polish-German relations. Publications, monographs and editions of sources, all offering an in-depth presentation of knowledge from the fields of history, the history of law and the politics of memory, may well prove conducive to a clarification of the controversies existing in the historical consciousness of Poles and Germans, thus becoming an important contribution to the debate on the divided memory of the Second World War, and ultimately helping overcome the past and serving to propagate a focus on a common future. Publications resulting from the project will document the Polish experience of the Second World War, among others through a presentation of unique source materials, and also provide a better understanding of the mechanisms governing German crimes and the problem with their judicial settlement after the war.

The anticipated result of the project will be the elaboration – utilizing the source material gathered – of a scholarly monograph and a five-volume edition of sources. Furthermore, the source materials digitized during the project will be turned into an archival database, which will be available on-line for scholars after the project is completed. Due to the importance of the topic for research into the course of trials of Nazi criminals in Germany and the predominant use of German archival materials, it is planned to publish partial results of the project also in German. The anticipated monograph will concern the prosecution and trial in the FRG of German crimes committed against Polish citizens. One of the end products of the project will be a several-volume edition of sources, encompassing, among others, the testimony of Polish and German witnesses given during trials before Allied tribunals and the courts of the FRG.


Research Team

Associate Professor Tomasz Chinciński (Pilecki Institute, Project Manager) – a Polish historian who conducts research into the attitudes of the German minority in inter-war Poland and during the Second World War, and also into German crimes committed in occupied Poland. He has published, among others, the following works: Bydgoszcz 3–4 września 1939. Studia i dokumenty (ed. together with P. Machcewicz, 2008); Forpoczta Hitlera. Niemiecka dywersja w Polsce w 1939 roku (2010), Polish Germans in the Stutthof Concentration Camp (“Totalitarian and 20th Century Studies”, 2022).

Dr. Dominika Uczkiewicz (Pilecki Institute, Deputy Project Manager) – a Polish lawyer and historian whose professional interests focus on transitional justice and the adjudication of war crimes. She has authored the following works: Polish and German Perspectives on Transitional Justice. World War Two and its Aftermath (together with W. Form, 2021), Problem odpowiedzialności karnej za zbrodnie wojenne w pracach rządu polskiego na emigracji. 1939–1945 (2022).

Professor Witold Stankowski (Pilecki Institute, Jagiellonian University) – a Polish historian and lawyer who conducts research into the Polish intelligentsia during the Second World War. He has published, among others, the following works: Szymon Wiesenthal. Biografia (2009), Rtm.Witold Pilecki i inni więźniowie KL Auschwitz wobec nowej rzeczywistości powojennej (ed., 2010), Zbrodnie Niemców na Polakach w pierwszych miesiącach drugiej wojny światowej 1939/1940 (“Zeszyty Naukowe Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego. Prace Historyczne”, 2022).

Associate Professor Magdalena Bainczyk (Institute of Western Affairs, Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski Academy in Kraków) – a Polish lawyer specializing in Polish and German constitutional law and the legal aspects of Polish-German relations. She has published, among others, the following works: State’s responsibility for international crimes. Reflexions upon the Rosenburg exhibition (together with A. Cyrul-Kubiak, 2021), Challenges for the Application of Rule of Law in European States (2019).

Associate Professor Annette Weinke (Friedrich Schiller University in Jena) – a German historian whose research interest focus on the history of Germany after 1945, the post-history of National Socialism, and the reckoning of crimes committed during the Second World War. She has authored, among others, the following works: Eine Gesellschaft ermittelt gegen sich selbst. Die Geschichte der Zentralen Stelle Ludwigsburg 1958–2008 (2008), Die Nürnberger Prozesse (2019). 

Dr. Andrej Angrick (Hamburg Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Culture) – a German historian who researches the crimes of the Third Reich and the Holocaust in Central and Eastern Europe. He has published, among others, the following works: Gestapo po roku 1945. Kariery, konflikty, konteksty (together with K. M. Mallmann, 2018), »Aktion 1005« ‑ Spurenbeseitigung von NS-Massenverbrechen 1942–1945: Ein geheime Reichssache« im Spannungsfeld von Kriegswende und Propaganda (2022), Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord. Die Einsatzgruppe D in der südlichen Sowjetunion 1941–1943 (2023).

 Dr. Philipp Marti (University of Basel) – a German historian and sociologist who focuses on the reckoning with the Nazi past in post-war Germany. He has authored a book titled Sprawa Reinefartha. Kat powstania warszawskiego czy szacowny obywatel (2016).

Dr. Joanna Nikel (Pilecki Institute) – a Polish historian and historian of art engaged in researching the history of Germany, with a particular focus on the totalitarianisms of the 20th century. She has published the monograph Kształcenie architektów w Niemczech Wschodnich w latach 1946–1970 na przykładzie Kunsthochschule Berlin Weissensee (2020).

Dr. Katharina Woniak (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg) – a historian of the Second World War and its aftermath. She has published, among others, the following works: W cieniu Norymbergi. Transnarodowe ściganie zbrodni nazistowskich (together with E. Heitzer, G. Morsch and R. Traba, 2019) Niechciany temat? Robotnicy przymusowi w czasie II wojny światowej (2021), Oblicza przymusu. Polacy na robotach w Berlinie 1939–1945 (2023).

Alina Nowobilska, MA, a Polish-British historian whose research focuses on the history of the Second World War, with a particular emphasis on the history of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Rafał Ruciński, MA (Pilecki Institute, Berlin Branch) – a Polish historian and archivist who conducts preliminary research in German archives in order to locate the documentation of trials of National Socialist criminals. 


Project Partners

International Research- and Documentation Centre for War Crimes Trials at Philipps University Marburg.

Federal archives and national archives in Germany and state archives in Poland.


Project Financing

The project is co-financed from state budget funds granted by the Minister of Education and Science under the “National Program for the Development of the Humanities”, “Foundations” module, in the years 2024‑2029, project number NPRH/ F/SN/0038/2024/13, amount of financing: 3,000,000.00 Polish zlotys.

Photo: Defendants at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, photo by the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.