Johann Breyer

08.05.2016 ( Last modified: 13.06.2016 )
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Johann Breyer was born on 30 May 1925, in the village of Neuwalldorf, in the former Czechoslovakia (now known as Novà Lesnà, Slovakia). In 1942, at the age of 17, he voluntarily joined the Waffen-SS (“armed protective squadron”) in Nazi Germany and was assigned the role of armed guard at the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, in Germany and Poland respectively.

Breyer acknowledged serving as a SS-Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”) guard and escorting prisoners to their work sites at the concentration camps, but he always denied having played any personal role in or having witnessed any of the atrocities perpetrated in the concentration camps.

In May 1952, Breyer entered the US under an immigrant visa, and claimed citizenship. He became a naturalised citizen in 1957.

In 1992, the American Office of Special Investigations became aware of Breyer’s role in the Waffen-SS. As a consequence, the US government immediately filed a denaturalisation action with the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.


legal procedure

In 1992, the American Office of Special Investigations became aware of Breyer’s role in the Waffen-SS. As a consequence, the US government immediately filed a denaturalisation action with the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

During the proceedings before this Court, Breyer admitted that he served as a “Death’s Head” guard at Buchenwald and was later transferred to Auschwitz. However, he stated that he was only patrolling the perimeter of the camps, and that only on three or four occasions did he march prisoners to construction sites outside the camp complex.

In 2003, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that he was not responsible for joining a Nazi unit because he was only 17 years old at the time, and was coerced into doing so.

A separate investigation was subsequently opened by the German District Court of Weiden. The prosecution, which found new evidence of Breyer’s alleged active participation in the mass killings in Auschwitz concentration camp, charged him on 17 June 2013 with 158 counts of aiding and abetting the murder of more than 216’000 European Jews from Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, who were forcibly deported to the camp on 158 trains between May and October 1944.

The investigation showed that Breyer had been promoted at least once while stationed at Auschwitz, and had been granted leave to visit his family twice. The prosecution asserted that only guards willing to perform the full range of duties arising from the belonging to the “Death’s Head” Battalion benefited from such treatment. As part of their routine, the “Death’s Head” guards were not only responsible for preventing escapes along the perimeter of the camp, but were also in charge of the selection of the deported population to the gas chambers.

Along with the indictment, the District Court of Weiden issued an arrest warrant for Breyer

On the basis of an extradition treaty existing between the US and Germany, Breyer was arrested by the American authorities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 17 June 2014. He was immediately placed in federal custody, pending an extradition hearing scheduled for 21 August of the same year. As the crimes he was accused of were extremely serious, he was denied baill.

However, because of health problems, Breyer was transferred in July to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. His health rapidly deteriorated, and he finally died on 22 July 2014, prior to his hearing.



After the Second World War numerous trials against war criminals and those responsible for Nazi crimes took place in Germany and other countries. It is not possible here to give an overview of all the trials. Below are the main facts concerning the major trials of war criminals at Nuremberg.


The German armed forces surrendered unconditionally on 7-8 May 1945. The Allies (USA, Soviet Union, Great Britain and France) took over all governmental functions in Germany, instituted the Allied Control Council and divided Germany into four zones of occupation.

After the adoption of the London Charter of 8 August 1945, the Allies set up the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in order to judge the major German war criminals. Annex III of the Agreement contains the Statute of the International Military Tribunal (IMT Statute [2]).


According to Articles 1-3 of the London Charter, war criminals with offenses having no particular geographical location were to be judged by the IMT. However in accordance with Articles 4 and 6 of the Convention, the principle of territoriality was to apply to the other German war criminals, with the courts of those states where crimes had been committed having the competence to try these criminals on the basis on their national laws.

Crimes within the jurisdiction of IMT:

– Crimes against peace;

– War crimes and

– Crimes against humanity (Article 6 of IMT Statute).

The IMT was composed of four judges and four substitutes who were appointed by the four Allied powers (Article 2 IMT Statute). In application of Article 13 of the IMT Statute, the Tribunal drew up its own Rules of Procedure

The IMT indicted 24 people in total. The trials took place from 14 November 1945 until 1 October 1946. Twelve defendants were sentenced to death, three were acquitted and seven others were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. In one case, the procedure was suspended for health reasons and in another the defendant committed suicide before his trial.


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