Fritz Ertl

(Breitbrunn 1908 – Linz 1982): Deputy Head of the Central Construction Management of the Waffen-SS and Police at Auschwitz

The Bauhaus architect who planned a concentration camp

The Nazi extermination camps had to be planned and built. To do this, the criminal regime required experts order to ensure the realisation of the genocide programme. In Auschwitz, this began with the SS-Neubauabteilung (SS New Build Department); in October 1941, the SS-Sonderbauleitung (SS Special Construction Management) was added, and both were merged into the Zentralbauleitung (Central Construction Management) of the Waffen-SS and police in the same month.

The paths that led to Auschwitz were by no means preordained for some perpetrators. Had they lived in a different time, they might have been able to make an important contribution to society. Fritz Ertl was a talented architect who had dedicated himself to architectural modernism through his training at the Bauhaus in Dessau and had already realised his first projects in this regard. Modernism and Nazism were not opposites, on the contrary. Bauhaus architect Fritz Ertl is proof of this.

Fritz Ertl’s father was a master builder. After his studies, Fritz Ertl joined his father’s company. He had evidently already belonged to the Austrian Nazi Party, which had been banned since 1933; his Party joining date was given as 1 May 1938, as was customary for other (previously) illegal members. He joined the SS in the same year and was drafted to serve in the Waffen-SS in Krakow in 1939. Ertl was involved in the construction of the Auschwitz concentration camp from the start, i.e. from late May 1940. He worked there until January 1943. Ertl acted as head of the Technical Department and later as Department Head for Structural Engineering, finally becoming Deputy Head of the Central Construction Management. He also made a career within the SS, reaching the rank of SS-Untersturmführer.

From October 1941 to summer 1944, more than 180 people worked for the Central Construction Management, commanded by over twenty SS Executives. Approximately 8,000 prisoners and 1,000 civilians worked for the Central Construction Management, and around 100 imprisoned Polish architects worked as forced labourers.

Many construction plans also bear Fritz Ertl’s signature, including the first draft for the newly-planned Birkenau camp, which at that time was still intended to be a POW camp for members of the Red Army. As Deputy Head of the Central Construction Management, Ertl chaired a meeting on 19 August 1942 to plan further crematoria. The minutes are a key document because it was there that the companies concerned were demonstrably made privy to the plan to murder by gas for the first time. Using obfuscatory language, the gas chambers were referred to as “washhouses for special actions”. Josef Janisch from Salzburg, who later oversaw the “special construction measures”, i.e. the construction of the new crematoria with the gas chambers on site, also took part in the meeting.

Ertl claimed after the end of the war that he had volunteered to go to the front because he had seen how “the camp operation was developing”. Hermann Langbein, Auschwitz survivor and initiator of the Austrian Auschwitz trial believed him. Whether this was actually the case remains a matter of speculation. After the end of the war, Ertl was taken prisoner of war in Austria, and from August 1946 he worked in the family company again. At the trial of Ertl and the Tyrolean architect Walter Dejaco, Ertl tried to play down his role in the Central Construction Management. At that time, many files of the Central Construction Management were held by the Moscow Special Archive and strictly classified. The trial ended on 10 March 1972 with the acquittal of both defendants. This was typical of such trials in Austria, as verdict were passed by juries rather than people with a legal education.