The Dachau Processes in Slovenia
(objavljeno v zborniku Transnationale Gedenkenkultur, CID Dachau, junij 2008)
The Dachau processes are a typical yet an unexceptional case among Yugoslavia’s political processes in the first years after the Second World War. They consisted of a sequence of 10 processes which took place in Slovenia between April 1948 and October 1949 and were launched against prisoners who had returned from German concentration camps after the end of the Second World War. Most of the accused were former Dachau prisoners, while others had also returned from Buchenwald and Auschwitz, which is why the processes are also called »the lager processes«. The accused included many former soldiers in the Spanish Civil War who had fought against Franco and later became the main organisers of the resistance against Nazism. Thirty-seven people were accused in the processes. Three of them were Austrian citizens, two were former Austrian soldiers in the Spanish Civil War and communists, and a third was the wife of one of the accused Slovenians. Another wife of an accused man was convicted during the trials (to death by shooting).
All of them were accused of being Gestapo agents. Some were alleged to have been agents even before they had been brought to the camp, while others were said to have become agents only later. The entire Yugoslav illegal party committee as well as the international illegal party committees from Dachau and Buchenwald were accused of being Gestapo agents. They were also accused of collaboration in war crimes and underground acts of sabotage against the new people's authorities. Later these accusations triggered indignant responses in Yugoslavia and internationally, especially in the Austrian Communist Party which soon after the processes had come to an end demanded the rehabilitation of all its accused members. What was most tragic in the Dachau processes was that most of the accused admitted their »guilt«. Today we know that these admissions were obtained by force through horrible pressure and torture, and were further »substantiated« by statements that the state was in danger and that even false admissions would help the people's power and the Party to maintain the new social order. The proceedings of the question sessions (when these were recorded at all) clearly demonstrate an artful mixture of manipulation and constraint which led to these unprecedented »admissions«.
The inquiry procedure against three people was terminated due to a lack of evidence, and three accused died during the investigation. Eleven people were convicted to death and shot. Twenty of the accused were sentenced to long-term prison incarceration in the then Yugoslav internment camps, especially on the infamous Goli otok island off the Croatian coast. One of these prisoners later died on this island. It should be mentioned that even today it is unknown exactly where and when the accused who were sentenced to death were shot, and where they were buried. According to some information, some of those sentenced to death were in fact kept alive living in a secret place for several years after the processes had terminated.
A substantially larger number of people than those who were formally accused had been made suspects, detained and severely questioned, but the processes against them were later suddenly stopped by the authorities. Nevertheless, these people remained stigmatised by the suspicion of potential treason and experienced forms of social exclusion long after the processes had wound up. The processes were public with the course of trials even being directly broadcast on the radio. This was done in order to intimidate the potential opposition to the political regime. It is difficult to imagine the suffering and disbelief of other former prisoners who day in and day out were listening to the unbelievable and horrifying accusations coming from everywhere against their former fellow sufferers, many of whom used to be their moral role-models in the camps and were now under suspicion merely because they had survived the horrors of the Nazi camps. This was especially the case of those who had been active in the prisoners’ illegal resistance organisations, and even more so if they had been former communists, those who had been active in the hospital huts or who had any kind of »privilege« in the camp. Understandably, soon after the end of the war due to such pressure the Dachau and other prisoners »surrounded themselves in silence«. They often did not want to speak about their experience, even to those closest to them.
Interestingly, serious doubts regarding the Dachau processes and especially regarding the legal processes and out-of-court processes started to be raised during the 1950s. The Slovenian Party and top state officials many times discussed this, publicising their partial recognition that the processes might have been a mistake and that some of the accused were innocent, and yet it was only in 1989 at the 10th Congress of the Federation of the Communists of Slovenia that a declaration about the total voidness of all accusations and convictions and about the final and total redress of the consequences of the convictions made during the processes was adopted. In October 1989 a cenotaph for the victims of the Dachau processes was unveiled at the Ljubljana city cemetery. Only in 2007 did the Slovenian Society of Dachau Prisoners become the legal owner of the monument and its curator.
Processes such as the Dachau processes and events occurring alongside them are not unusual for communist regimes in Eastern Europe as similar processes against former prisoners were also held in other Eastern-bloc countries. In the Soviet Union, former prisoners from the concentration camps were often sent to the Soviet internment camps and prisons without ever being put on trial or convicted. Some spent ten or more years in them; many died there. Their main crime was that of suspected collaboration with the German secret services, with the Nazis. The allegations were based on »logic«: it is better to lock up an innocent than to let a guilty one walk free. In this sense, the Slovenian Dachau processes were no exception. Even more, it is said that, at least partly, the initiative for them came from Soviet sources. The Soviet secret services are said to have warned the Yugoslav authorities about the secret Gestapo agents among former prisoners, especially among members of the camp party committees. There was allegedly a Soviet list of potential agents of this kind who were said to have been active specifically in Slovenia. This list was said to have been handed over to the Yugoslav authorities in 1946, but to date it has not been discovered.
Understandably, the Yugoslav and Slovenian post-war authorities and secret services were eager to »lend an ear« to such lists and warnings due to the wave of paranoia of the post-war foreign agencies, and a new war between the »East« and the »West«. Naturally, Yugoslavia and especially Slovenia would be the first to be affected. I therefore agree with the estimations of several analysts that the Slovenian Dachau processes were not about a specific political conspiracy against certain persons or groups of persons, rather they were an expression of the paranoia of the then authorities, especially the secret services, and of their excessive obedience to the Soviet intelligence sources, as well as their intimidation of the real and imaginary opponents to the regime.
Let me mention as a curiosity that one of the then cruellest interrogators and a high-ranking official of the Yugoslav secret service fled to Canada soon after the processes ended in 1952 due to the real suspicion that he was an agent of the Western intelligence services, and probably that even before that he was a German agent on the Partisan lines. If this is true then what was happening in the background during preparations for the processes and during the processes themselves must also have been known to foreign intelligence services, meaning that they had allowed their agents to co-operate in these criminal acts. During hearings of one of the first of the accused, a soldier in the Spanish war and a Dachau prisoner, Janko Puffler, who at time of his arrest was the Director of the Hrastnik Glassworks, interrogators from the Central Prisons in Ljubljana are said to have even used the help of a former Head of the Gestapo in Trbovlje, a town neighbouring Hrastnik, who during the war had been taken prisoner by the partisans and then locked away in these very prisons. In this way they tried to force Puffler to concede the admission that for many years he had been a Gestapo agent. On the other hand, some agents of the then Yugoslav secret services who knew the accused Puffler very well were also ruthlessly questioned. These agents were also forced to sign fictitious confessions of crimes with which the accused were then charged. Due to the resourcefulness of one of them, his confession was so incredulous that it was unsuitable for use at the main hearing.
Most of the accused were intellectuals. The majority were experts in natural and technical sciences, but there were also lawyers, teachers, doctors and economists. Some were common workers who had unfortunately been devoted activists of the Slovenian Liberation Front and communists. This proves that the processes were not the settling of accounts with the technical or natural science intellectual elite, as is often interpreted in Slovenia. Rather they were about looking for scapegoats who would be made responsible for the poor functioning of companies that had been taken over. Influential people in the then Party and authorities did not want to admit that the poor functioning of these companies was a consequence of negligence and poor management. They wanted to persuade the public that these unfortunate cases were the result of a conspiracy and the diversion of secret enemy agents. So the alleged assumptions about suspiciousness – particularly of head persons in strategically important companies and institutions who had »miraculously« survived German concentration camps and were leaders of illegal resistance organisations – came at just the right time. And they started with investigations which were accompanied by compulsory Stalinist forms of torture and intimidation. This was not the usual paranoia of those in power, which is triggered by a crisis situation when the authorities feel threatened, but a paranoia which was in the first place artificially triggered by the authorities themselves for intimidation and disciplining purposes.
As is shown in the documents the Dachau processes were terminated after two years upon the clear demand of the Yugoslav Party leadership. Investigators from Belgrade understood from the outset of the processes that these, together with their accusations were a construct, and they advised their Slovenian colleagues to stop them. However, they continued with their work and carried out a series of accusations which stigmatised the image of the Second World War concentration camps’ prisoners for decades. During that time, Yugoslavia’s well-known breaking off from the Soviet bloc happened, but it would seem that at first this break worked in the direction of accelerated and emphasised totalitarianism which often took on even more absurd forms than those seen in the Soviet Union itself. An example of this context is the forced collectivisation of agriculture during 1948-53 and special penal camps for a mass of accused.
Many former prisoners, especially those from Dachau and Buchenwald, have a first-hand experience of the consequences of the Dachau processes since many years after the war they experienced every form of pettifoggery, injustice or threat which were usually anonymous but no less real. They were put into exposed working positions where they had to prove their loyalty to the regime, for example by executing questionable or risky orders. If they stood up against this, they risked the loss of their work and social positions.
One reason why numerous Slovenian prisoners after the end of the Second World War experienced pressures and pettifoggery by the authorities is that the surviving prisoners were usually morally exceptional personalities. They unwittingly showed to the people around them that you can remain human and survive destructive systems such as the Nazi camps. Even more, this fact showed that such people would also remain upright and insubordinate in the circumstances of new dictatorships. This is perhaps what the new rulers could not stand since the former prisoners unwittingly held up a mirror in front of them in which they could see the misshapened image of the system which was developing after the war.