The case of Franz Bodmann

Not too long ago, the Salzburg municipality of Lend received a request from the German Bundestag regarding the future handling of Franz Bodmann’s grave. In Lend, this inquiry came as a surprise: the local Nazi history had just been dealt with in a research project. The name Bodmann was not the focus of these studies. The name, however, was apparently well known to others, because the grave has been adorned by foreigners over the years. But why is that of importance?

A text by Robert Obermair and Antonia Winsauer (translated by Bettina Reiter).

Franz Freiherr Hermann Johann Maria von Bodmann was born in Munich in 1909. In 1934, he received his M.D. Two years earlier in 1932, he had already joined the NSDAP (No. 1,098,482), before joining the Allgemeine SS (No. 267.787) in 1934. From 1939 onwards, he also worked professionally for the SS: From October 1939 to June 1940 and then again from July 1941 to January 1942, he was a doctor of the 79th Standarte of the Allgemeine SS in Ulm. During this time he rose to the rank of SS Obersturmführer – an officer’s rank comparable to that of a senior lieutenant today. The future career of the father of three children in the Nazi system reads like a screenplay of a horror film.

The future career of the father of three children in the Nazi system reads like a screenplay of a horror film.

After he entered the active service of the Waffen SS in early 1942, he was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp at the end of January 1942 as a camp doctor. A few months later, in May 1942, he was appointed site doctor. The position included considerable competencies. Not only was he responsible for the hygiene and sanitary facilities in the camp but he also held a position of great power; The SS troop doctors (responsible for the SS staff), the SS camp doctors, the SS pharmacists and the medical service levels were now subordinate to him. Because of these extensive competencies, the attitude of the site doctor regarding the health and medical conditions in the camp was often of great influence.

Part of organized murder

Bodmann’s case cruelly illustrates how doctors in the Nazi system exploited their positions of power completely contrary to any medical ethics. In his new position Bodmann showed initiative in killing: According to reports by former concentration camp inmates, he introduced the method of killing prisoners with phenol injections. Unlike many other SS doctors who retreated to the command level in this matter, he himself personally murdered with phenol injections. While some other of his murderous tasks, such as making selections of which prisoners should be gassed, were – as cruel as it sounds – one of the “standard tasks” of camp doctors, Bodmann also showed initiative in other matters. According to a report by a former concentration camp inmate, Bodmann, e.g. prohibited that the wounds of a shot Jewish woman were treated. The image of the bleeding woman should serve as a deterrent to other prisoners.

Stations of terror

Until mid-August 1942, Bodmann remained a site doctor in Auschwitz. He did not return to Auschwitz after suffering from typhus. As a result, he was 1st camp doctor at the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp (Poland) until April 1943. In the meantime, however, he must have been deployed at least for a short time in the Neuengamme concentration camp (Germany). In the fall of 1942, he was SS site doctor and apparently involved in the murder of Soviet prisoners of war with Zyklon B.

Franz Bodmann

Bodmann subsequently got around a lot: From April to August 1943, he was the first camp doctor at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp (France). He then served as chief physician in the Vavaira concentration camp (Estonia) and its satellite camp. From mid-September 1944 onwards, he was employed in the SS-Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt of the Amtsgruppe D (inspection of the concentration camps). In mid-October 1944, he changed to the Hauptampt of the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle. From August 1944 onwards, he was also a doctor in the 5th SS-Panzerdivision “Wiking”. He probably remained in this division until the end of the war.

When Bodmann became part of this SS division, it was already retreating, first to Hungary and after the defeat in the Battle of Budapest via Czechoslovakia to Austria. After the general surrender of the Wehrmacht, the “Wiking” division stopped fighting on May 8, 1945. Many of the division’s members, including probably Bodmann, were taken prisoner of war by the US-American troops in the district of St. Johann im Pongau in Salzburg.

Silent end in the Salzburg hinterland

On May 25, 1945, Bodmann committed suicide in the military hospital of the “Markt Pongau” prisoner of war camp in St. Johann im Pongau. However, he was buried in Lend at the local military cemetery. Why he was buried there is still unclear. One assumption is that the pastor of Lend at that time ran a kind of sick camp and not only cared for the sick from the prisoner of war camp in St. Johann but possibly also transferred the deceased to Lend for burial.

In 1950, the local military cemetery was officially built as the “honorary cemetery” of the Austrian Black Cross. It is now located in a part of the cemetery behind the local church, delimited by a small wall. There are two rows of stone crosses, several plaques, stone statues and a carved wooden cross. The name Franz Bodmann can be found on one of the stone crosses. Interestingly, Bodmann is not the only “foreigner” who has found his final resting place here. This probably has to do with the fact that further dead from St. Johann were buried here, because Bodmann’s name also appears on a wooden armorial which is part of a war memorial on the back of the local church. Here he is listed as one of twenty “police officers” who died in the hospital in St. Johann and were buried in Lend.

Dealing with the Nazi past

Since in recent months the case of Bodmann has suddenly become topical again, discussions on how to deal with it have inevitably come up. Should the tombstone be removed? Or can an explanation board be attached, as the historian Rudi Leo suggested?

Bodmann’s grave

The Mayor of Lend, Michaela Höfelsauer (SPÖ), seems very committed to the matter. Even before the Bodmann affair became public, Lend had worked intensively on its Nazi history; in 2018, a memorial plaque was inaugurated for the former pastor of Lend, Kaspar Feld, who was persecuted by the National Socialists. Höfelsauer considers putting up an explanatory plaque in the matter of Bodmann hasty. It is not yet clear whether there are other graves in the local military cemetery that at least need to be contextualized. This seems not unlikely, because with a short look around you will come across the tombstone of a Ritterkreuzträger. In order to clarify questions like these, she has already commissioned extensive research.

At the same time there is the fear that by attaching an explanatory plague the grave could become a pilgrimage site for (extreme) right-wingers. This is not entirely unfounded since Bodmann’s grave is among the few graves at the military cemetery that are regularly decorated with flowers. Also, it is noteworthy that the abbreviation “Pol.” (Probably incorrectly for “police”) was also scratched from the inscription on his tombstone. Undoubtedly, he should be played down as an “apolitical” doctor.

What is to be done?

One thing is certain: Steps must urgently be taken to process the case of Bodmann and its questionable appraisal at the cemetery of honour. Removing the grave is not a satisfactory solution. Even if at first glance this seems to be an easier solution than an uncommented memorial for an SS murderer, it would be all the more concealment of past injustice. A courageous artistic memorial intervention would be desirable to break with the military “hero” staging of the military cemetery.

For example, one could think about laying down Bodmann’s tombstone and all other tombstones at the military cemetery that may also be encumbered and engraving historical contextualizations on the back of it including the crimes committed. An alternative would be to cover the Bodmann grave with Plexiglas panes, on which his crimes from the Nazi era are listed and at the same time the question of the Austrian culture of remembrance after 1945 is addressed.

His hands were a butcher’s and his eyes were cold, pitiless windows.

Until a major artistic and historical reappraisal and contextualization are realized, at least the installation of an explanatory board in the form of a publicly visible statement along with a clear demarcation from the atrocities of Bodmann is necessary. It could thus act as a (financially manageable) interim solution until the investigations mentioned by Höfelsauer have ended, which then should be used to initiate a new contextualization of the local commemoration. An uncommented “honorable” commemoration of a murderous Nazi perpetrator like Bodmann is simply unbearable and unacceptable. Orli Reichert-Wald, the camp elder in the prisoner hospital building of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, described Bodmann with the following words, “His hands were a butcher’s and his eyes were cold, pitiless windows.”

The military cemetery in Lend

Many questions are still open. Only one thing seems to be clear to everyone involved: after 75 years of silence, Bodmann’s grave can no longer be ignored. The fact that the community leaders recognize the urgent need for action – and this seems to be the case in the municipality of Lend with its mayor – can be seen as a promising starting point for visible rethinking and reshaping of local commemoration. One can only hope that the community does not wait too long to deal with Bodmann. Then it will also become evident whether the Catholic Church or (local) politicians support the redesign.

“(Warrior) monuments as identity foundations of the survivors” – if you look at the scope of this term, which was shaped by the renowned historian Reinhart Koselleck, and take other stone witnesses of memory such as the tomb of the Nazi criminal Bodmann into consideration, then a transformation is imperative in order not to remain attached to the problematic memory of the dead.