Only one SS soldier believed that what Mengele and Auschwitz represented was inhumane. That was Hans Wilhelm Münch, the only physician whose commitment to the Hippocratic Oath proved stronger than the Reichswehreid [German Army Oath] and his commitment to the SS. In terms of this Oath, obedience to the Führer, the supreme commander, was unconditional, yet Münch survived.
Main picture: Hans Wilhelm Münch
Exposed as delinquent
Münch was exposed as a defective member of SS in an unusual manner. During 1947, the communist authorities in Poland began a series of trials of people accused of participating in mass murder at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The second of these trials, confusingly called “The First Auschwitz Trial”, involved 40 defendants, most of whom were highly placed officers and administrators in the camp.
Out of the forty defendants, twenty-three were sentenced to death by hanging, six to life imprisonment, seven to 15 years imprisonment, and three to 10, 5 and 3-years imprisonment respectively. Only one defendant was acquitted of all charges. This was Hans Wilhelm Münch.
An unremarkable upbringing
After graduating from a gymnasium, Hans Münch studied medicine at the University of Tübingen and the Munich University. He was active in the political section of the Reichs-studentenführung (Reich’s leadership of university students). In 1934, he joined the NSDStB, the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (National Socialist German Students’ League) and the NSKK – Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrerkorps (National Socialist Motor Corps). In May 1937, he joined the NSDAP. He received his doctor’s degree and married a physician in 1939.
When World War II began, he replaced country doctors in their practices in the Bavarian countryside as they had been inducted into the army; Münch’s attempt to enlist in the Wehrmacht was rejected as his work as a doctor was considered too important.
As far as the evidence suggests, Dr. Münch was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party. Whether he joined up out of genuine belief in their ideals, or for self-serving reasons to advance his own career as a doctor and bacteriologist, will never be known.
The Auschwitz moral proving ground
In June 1943, Münch was recruited as a scientist by the Waffen-SS and was sent to the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen-SS in Raisko, about 4 km from the main camp at Auschwitz. Münch worked alongside the infamous Josef Mengele, who was the same age and also came from Bavaria. Münch continued the bacteriological research for which he was known before the war, as well as making occasional inspections of the camps and the prisoners.
Along with other doctors, Münch was expected to participate in the “selections” at the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, to decide who among the incoming Jewish men, women and children could work, who would be experimented on, and who would be killed in the gas chambers. Münch found this abhorrent and refused to participate. This was confirmed by witnesses’ testimony at his trial in Poland after the war. The book on SS physicians of Auschwitz by Robert Jay Lifton in 1986 confirms that Münch was the only physician whose commitment to the Hippocratic oath proved stronger than that to the SS.
While Münch did conduct human experiments, these were often elaborate farces intended to protect inmates, as experiment subjects who were no longer useful were usually killed. According to testimony from inmate Dr. Louis Micheels, Münch’s last act before the camp was abandoned was to provide him with a revolver to assist his escape. After the evacuation of Auschwitz in 1945, Münch spent three months at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich.
After the war in 1945, Münch was arrested in a US internment camp after being identified as an Auschwitz physician. He was extradited to Poland in 1946 to stand trial in Kraków. He was specifically accused of injecting inmates with malaria-infected blood, and with a serum that caused rheumatism.
However, many former prisoners testified in support of Münch in their witness speeches. while people with every right to hate the Nazis described the crimes of 39 defendants in detail, they surprised all the judges and prosecutors by standing up for an SS man and member of the Nazi party who worked for one of history’s greatest monsters. Nobody really expected that, but the testimonies were so earnest, consistent and came from so many inmates, that even communist prosecutors had to concede their charges were unsubstantiated.
The court acquitted him on 22 December 1947, “not only because he did not commit any crime of harm against the camp prisoners, but because he had a benevolent attitude toward them and helped them, while he had to carry the responsibility. He did this independently from the nationality, race-and-religious origin and political conviction of the prisoners.” The court’s acquittal was based, among other things, on his strict refusal to participate in the selections.
Of the 41 Auschwitz staff tried in Kraków, only Münch was acquitted. He was called the “Good Man of Auschwitz“, who had saved prisoners from death in the gas chambers.
He took over a rural doctor’s practice in Roßhaupten in Ostallgäu, Bavaria. In 1964, Münch testified in the first Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt on Main and in the following trials, he was called on for his expert opinion.
In West Germany, Münch took part in discussion meetings and commemoration ceremonies. He was appreciated for having saved many Auschwitz prisoners at the risk of his own life. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, he made a journey back to the concentration camp. Münch was invited by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Josef Mengele’s experiments on twins. Münch and Kor signed public declarations regarding what had happened there and declaring that such a thing should never be allowed to happen again.
Controversial final years
After narrowly escaping prosecution in 1947, Münch now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease made many controversial comments often in support of the experiments on human at Auschwitz. In 1998 journalist Bruno Schirra published an interview with Münch, conducted a year earlier, in Der Spiegel. Schirra and Münch had watched the film Schindler’s List, and the interview was conducted directly after the viewing.
Exacerbating the situation were derogative statements about Roma and Sinti made by Münch In 1998, on the French radio programme France-Inter, where he said that the Roma were “pathetic” and the gas chambers would have been the only solution for them. Münch was accused of “incitement of racial hatred“. He did not take part in the court hearing. A medical expert opinion had certified him “psychologically disturbed”. The acquittal was based on this expert opinion. The Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on 7 May 2001 that the Paris appeal court had annulled the June 2000 acquittal.
In May 2001, Münch was convicted in Paris for “incitement of racial hatred” and “belittlement of crimes against humanity“. The prosecutor demanded not the imprisonment of Münch but his release on license. Münch was found guilty, but due to his old age and his mental health, the Paris appeal court decided that the 89-year-old Münch should not serve out the sentence. As in the previous proceedings, Münch did not attend the court hearings.