A Murderer on the Loose I

Article published on July 26, 2014
Article published on July 26, 2014

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

An example of how Austria has dealt with Nazi war criminals following the Independence Treaty of 1955.

Franz Murer was born in Styria in 1912. He gained no­to­ri­ety under the nick­name “The Butcher of Vilnius”. He died in 1994, just a few miles away from his birth­place. 

His Crimes

He joined the Nazi Party and in 1941 was made re­spon­si­ble for “Jew­ish Af­fairs” in Vil­nius. Dur­ing his of­fice – which lasted until 1943 – the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion count fell from 80,000 to 600. He had a grue­some rep­u­ta­tion as a sadist. And a cor­rupt sadist at that: one’s sen­tence could be mit­i­gated with jew­ellery and gold.

Simon Wie­sen­thal re­ports how, under his com­mand, two groups were brought to­gether: A labour bat­tal­ion that was to ex­e­cute the mem­bers of the other group in the nearby for­est. The fa­ther of a 17 year-old boy was in the labour bat­tal­ion; his son was in the other group. The boy tried to sneak his way over to his fa­ther. Murer caught him and shot him dead be­fore his fa­ther's very eyes.

An­other wit­ness tells of the ban on hav­ing chil­dren in the Ghetto. Murer took one child away from its mother, poi­soned it and tossed it back to her in bed with a laugh. An­other one re­lates how a hunch­backed girl, walk­ing along the street in the Ghetto, passed by Murer. He is said to have re­marked to a Ger­man, "Just look at the filth in this Ghetto!", whipped out his pis­tol and shot down the girl of about ten.

The Con­se­quences

In 1947, Simon Wiesen­thal is stay­ing in Gaishorn, and whilst there he hap­pens to bump into Murer. He is handed over to the Al­lies and ends up in Graz Cen­tral Prison. In 1948, the British – who pre­vi­ously ac­cepted the re­spon­si­bil­ity – hand him on to the So­viet Union. Many tes­tify against his hor­rific crimes, and one year later he is sen­tenced to 25 years' penal labour. 

1955 – every Aus­trian knows the date: The Aus­trian State Treaty. Fol­low­ing Aus­tria's free­dom, the So­viet Union hands over all POWs and war crim­i­nals to the newly chris­tened Re­pub­lic. In its orig­i­nal sense, the han­dover was not tan­ta­mount to their re­lease. Nev­er­the­less, Wiesen­thal bumps into Murer again in 1960. So, over the course of the "Murer Files", he phones the po­lice sta­tion in Gaishorn to ask for de­tails of the ar­rest. The po­lice­man says that he doesn't ac­tu­ally know any­thing about it but is happy to help. He says that he will get in touch again at a later date and ques­tion Murer in the mean­time. Wiesen­thal is ap­palled. Murer was free, then. Once again he phones the Fed­eral Min­istry of Jus­tice. There they ex­plain that there's prob­a­bly been a bu­reau­cratic blun­der

Mean­while, thanks to the bu­reau­cratic blun­der, Murer had man­aged to be­come a mem­ber of the Aus­trian Peo­ple's Party (Ger­man: Öster­re­ichis­che Volkspartei, ÖVP) and had been elected as a mem­ber of the Dis­trict Cham­ber of Agri­cul­ture. When Wiesen­thal man­ages to co-or­di­nate a new ar­rest with in­ter­na­tional sup­port in 1962, Murer's col­leagues ob­ject his de­ten­tion. In the trial that en­sues, wit­nesses tes­tify once more, in­clud­ing even the fa­ther of the son who was gunned down. The ver­dict: "Not guilty." Murer is free for good.