Arthur Liebehenschel, Commandant of Auschwitz

Arthur Liebehenschel was the Commandant of Auschwitz 1, the main camp, for five months, beginning on December 1, 1943. He replaced Rudolf Hoess, who was sent to Oranienburg to take over Liebehenschel's former job in the WVHA, the Economic office which controlled the administration of the concentration camps. Hoess had been the Commandant of all three Auschwitz camps (Auschwitz I, Birkenau and Monowitz) but Liebehenschel was only the Commandant of the Auschwitz I camp.

Arthur Liebehenschel

Liebehenschel's daughter, Barbara, has written a book about her father, entitled "The Auschwitz Kommandant." She describes her father as a man of contradictions, who performed acts of compassion and was stricken with guilt for his role in the deaths of women and children.

At his trial after the war, a German who had worked with Liehehenschel testified that the Commandant had once traveled to Oranienburg in an attempt to stop the gassing of 500 prisoners. All punishments in the concentration camps had to be authorized by the WVHA in Oranienburg.

Several former prisoners at Auschwitz testified for the defense that Liebehenschel had improved conditions in the camp. Liebehenschel has been credited with tearing down the standing cells in the basement of Block 11, which have since been reconstructed for the benefit of tourists.

In her book, Barbara credits her father with the release of prisoners who had been held in the camp prison for months and with building a swimming pool for the inmates at Auschwitz I. He ended punishment for minor crimes and stopped the informer network among the prisoners.

In the Epilogue of the book entitled "Death Dealer," the editor of the book, Steven Paskuly wrote the following:

Liebehenschel ordered the indiscriminate beatings of the prisoners stopped. Some Kapos thought that this new Kommandant was just saying this for the record and continued their abusive ways. Liebehenschel took away their positions of authority and put them back into the ranks of the general prison population. The beatings in Auschwitz stopped.

Piotr Setkiewicz, the head of research at the Auschwitz Museum, described Liebehenschel as "not the ordinary bad guy among the high ranking SS."

"There is one testimony from a prisoner that said Liebehenschel heard some prisoners had inadequate shoes, so he ordered them to have new ones.

"Perhaps he was being humanitarian, or perhaps it was because at that time the SS were using the prisoners as slave labour and he wanted them to work harder. But I never heard anyone say something like this about Hoess, for example."

However, the Report of the Soviet War Crimes Commission, dated 6 May 1945, has this to say about Liebehenschel:

The killing of prisoners in any manner was permitted by the camp administration. Obersturmbannfuehrer LIEBEHENSCHEL issued an order in which he offered the SS 50 marks for every inmate killed "trying to escape". To receive this reward, the guards murdered without being punished.


The Hitlerians demanded inceasingly more and more murders from their subordinates. On 24 February 1944, the chief of the Auschwitz garrison, Obersturmbannfuehrer LIEBEHENSCHEL, issued an order stating: "Lengthy personal observations have enabled me to observe that there are too many prisoners working on all worksites, with the exception of the armaments factories -- and their working strength is not being exploited. They loaf around. We are aware that tougher supervision by young SS officers would be necessary to increase the working yield from the prisoners, but we also know that we have no additional contingents available for this purpose, since they are either at the front or are doing service in other important sectors. We must help ourselves. It is obvious that we must act quickly, and I hope that every one will do what is necessary on his own initiative..."

The result of this order was that frightful processions could be seen every evening, drawing along the roads -- from all sides of Auschwitz camp, from the factories, the swamps, from the mines back to the barracks -- surrounded by SS men and overseers with huge packs of dogs; blood-bespotted, exhausted prisoners carried the corpses of their comrades on wooden stretchers.

At roll call, the prisoners were made to stand in long lines; the bodies of those tortured to death were laid out before them, and the overseers reported to their superiors regarding fulfilment of the LIEBEHENSCHEL order. The administration expressed its gratitude to the columns with the greatest number of corpses. Those guilty of misdemeanours were beaten with clubs before the eyes of the prisoners.

Liebehenschel chose for his second wife a woman named Annelise, who had been, from an SS point of view, far too friendly with Jews.

"Liebehenschel initially held a high-ranking position in the SS, but Heinrich Himmler was unhappy that he left his wife and family for another woman, who was linked to Jews, and so he was given a lower-level position in the SS administration," says Setkiewicz.

If this had not been the case, Barbara explains, he would never have ended up at Auschwitz.

As her research progressed, Barbara began to feel sorry for her father.

"I felt badly because he didn't really want to be there. He didn't want to go to Auschwitz. He was sent there as a punishment," she says.

When Barbara traced Annelise and interviewed her, she painted a picture of what this punishment meant for Liebehenschel.

According to Annelise, he would come home after watching new arrivals to Auschwitz and cry "oh no, women and children," suffer headaches, take walks and have long showers, which his daughter says was "to wash away that evil, which of course he couldn't."

In Piotr Setkiewicz's view, a "careful analysis of all the evidence is needed before you can come to a final statement" about Liebehenschel's record. But whatever improvement he represented, when measured against the worst Auschwitz commandants, these were in the end only "minor differences," he argues.

By the time that Liebehenschel became the Commandant of Auschwitz I, the gas chamber in that camp was no longer in operation and Liebehenschel had no authority to send prisoners to the gas chambers at the Birkenau camp. However, Setkiewicz believes that Liebehenschel still participated in genocide and countless innocent people were sent to their deaths during his time there.

One Auschwitz survivor, Dr Franz Danimann, told Barbara that her father's death sentence was "probably historically and legally a just verdict," but that he "should have been given amnesty" because of his "diverse and positive initiatives which helped many prisoners."

However, the prisoners who take a positive view of Liebehenschel's record are contradicted by others, also quoted in Barbara's book.

Former Auschwitz prisoner Wladyslaw Fejkiel said that during Liebehenschel's command "there were no positive changes for the care of the prisoners, related to food or medications. The sanitary conditions remained insufficient."

Fejkiel reports that Liebehenschel asked to be told about prisoners in poor health so that they could be considered first among those to be released from the camp. But he adds that he did "not know of a single case of those prisoners brought to his attention who were therefore released."

Liebehenschel said he attempted to ease conditions at Auschwitz, but his daughter concedes her father did not always tell the truth when interrogated by his captors after the war, and does not believe his claim that he did not know about the gas chambers at Auschwitz prior to his arrival at the camp.

She underlines that he was loyal to Hitler and voluntarily joined the SS, but she also sees him as someone "caught in a web."


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This page was last updated on January 24, 2010