Lorenz Hackenholt - Miscarriage of justice

Injustice evokes strong feelings of anger and disappointment. However, is the word “injustice” enough to describe the disappearance of Nazi officers who avoided trials and were thus never brought to justice?

Lorenz Hackenholt is an example of a high-ranked Nazi officer, SS-Hauptscharführer, who managed to disappear without a trace. And he was no ordinary officer. He was involved in Operation T4 (eliminating handicapped people from society) and was responsible for designing and supervision of gas chambers in the “Operation Reinhardt” camps. 

Hackenholt was born in 1914 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. He graduated with the title of a master bricklayer and started his job. After joining the SS in 1934, he served in Oranienburg at SS-Totenkopfverbände, “Brandenburg” regiment, whose task was to manage and guard German concentration camps. He was transferred to Sachsenhausen in 1938 and served as a mechanic and driver. In November 1939, he was assigned to Operation T4, targeted at physically eliminating mentally ill and handicapped people from society. There were six “euthanasia centers” of the T4 campaign - Hackenholt served in them all. He was a driver and a “disinfector”, a person responsible for removing corpses from gas chambers and cremating them. For a while, he was also SS-Untersturmführer Dr. August Becker’s personal driver. Becker was a chemist responsible for delivering gas containers to the killing centers.

As a veteran of Operation T4, he was sent to occupied Poland - first to Bełżec in the Lublin District, where the first extermination camp in the General Government was under construction. After using a mobile gas chamber for a short time, the camp commandant Christian Wirth made a decision to construct a stationary gas chamber in Bełżec. Hackenholt was trusted with the supervision of the gas chambers in the so-called camp II. At that time, he was given the name “Gasmeister”. However, the increasing number of transports showed that three gas chambers in a rough-and-ready wooden barrack were not enough. The so-called “Hackenholt Foundation”, designed and supervised by no one else but Hackenholt himself was constructed at the turn of June and July 1942. It was probably made of concrete and housed six gas chambers. Lorenz Hackenholt was already recognized as an expert in the field of gas chambers construction.

Christian Wirth soon became the inspector of all Operation Reinhardt camps. At the turn of August and September 1942, he decided to delegate Hackenholt to the death camp in Treblinka to design new gas chambers. The construction lasted about six weeks and was also supervised by Erwin Lambert. Then, Hackenholt and Lambert were sent to the death camp in Sobibór where they also constructed and supervised new, efficient gas chambers.

Hackenholt returned to Bełżec and continued his duties as “Gasmeister”. After the operation of the Bełżec camp ceased, his crew was to extract and burn about 450,000 corpses of victims buried in the vicinity of the camp. Lorenz Hackenholt personally operated the excavator which excavated the bodies to be cremated. He performed the same task in Treblinka in the spring of 1943. Finally, Hackenholt was sent to the labor camp at the old airport in Lublin, where the central sorting plant of Operation Reinhardt was situated. There, he disinfected the stolen clothing with Zyklon B. It is also believed that exhausted prisoners who were incapable of working were murdered in the disinfection rooms.

In September 1943, he was moved to Einsatz R on the Adriatic coast. The task of his unit was to get rid of Italian and Yugoslav partisans, as well as eliminate the local Jews. In 1944, Hackenholt was awarded the Second Class Iron Cross by Odilo Globocnik. In April 1945, he was arrested for the alleged sale of weapons to partisans. However, he avoided being shot and was released from custody.

Hackenholt was never seen again after the war. The court in Berlin-Schöneberg declared him dead in 1954, at the request of his wife. 

It must be added here that Lorenz Hackenholt was an alcoholic who enjoyed abusing others. He was repeatedly reported ruthless and violent. At the same time, he was described as servile towards Christian Wirth.

The mystery of Hackenholt’s disappearance bothers historians until today. After all, he is, directly and indirectly, responsible for the deaths of over 1 million people...