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Paul Ogorzow - The Nazi Serial Killer

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Paul Ogorzow - The Nazi Serial Killer 

(This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine)


In the autumn of 1940, Berlin was uneasy. The spectacular German victories, earlier that year, against France and Britain, had failed to ‘win’ the war, and the Nazi regime now spoke darkly of being in the ‘lull between two battles’. Labouring under the restrictions of the blackout and rationing, and enduring the horror of aerial bombing for the first time, Berliners viewed the approaching winter with considerable apprehension.

To make matters worse, it seemed that a new peril was stalking the night-time streets of the German capital. Over the previous few months, three women had been stabbed and two more assaulted in and around the eastern districts of Rummelsberg and Karlshorst. Then, in early October, the body of a young woman was discovered in the nearby suburb of Friedrichsfelde. The victim, a 20-year old mother of two, named Gerda Ditter, had been strangled and stabbed in the neck.

Soon, there were new victims. In November, a 30-year-old woman was beaten unconscious and thrown from a moving train in the south-east of Berlin, not far from the location of the previous attacks. Then, on the morning of December 4, two bodies were discovered. The first; that of 19-year-old Irmgard Frese, was found unconscious by the roadside, close to the railway lines in Karlshorst. She had suffered a fractured skull, and had been raped. The second; that of Elfriede Franke, a 26-year-old nurse, was found with fatal head injuries barely 500 metres away. She had been thrown from a moving train.

More corpses followed. 30-year-old Elisabeth Büngener was discovered on 22 December, with a fractured skull, close to the railway tracks at Rahnsdorf. A week later, the body of 46-year-old Getrud Siewert was found at Karlshorst. Like the others, she had a fractured skull and appeared to have been thrown from a train. A week after that, in early January 1941, the body of 28-year-old Hedwig Ebauer was found in similar circumstances near Wuhlheide. All three cases, the police concluded, fitted the profile of the previous attacks and the previous three murders. They were assumed to have been the work of the unknown assailant, who, police said, “threw his victims from moving trains” – the man already known to all Berlin as “the S-Bahn Murderer”.

With the German capital on tenterhooks, the killer became more sporadic in his attacks. It was to be fully five weeks after the last of the murderous spree that had filled December and early January before he struck again. However, on the night of 11 February, a woman’s body was found by the rail tracks near Rummelsburg; Johanna Voigt was 39, she had suffered horrific head injuries and had been thrown from a train.

The next – and final – victim came five months after that, in early July 1941, when the body of 35-year-old Frieda Koziol was discovered, with a fractured skull, in the same district of alleys and allotments where the first victim had been killed 10 months earlier.

That same week, however, the police got lucky. In their trawl of 5,000 railway employees, one name had kept on being mentioned. Paul Ogorzow was a 29-year old assistant signalman on the S-Bahn, who had aroused the suspicion of his colleagues because of his outspoken misogyny and his habit of jumping the perimeter fence and wandering off when on duty. Ogorzow – who had been questioned before – was arrested and questioned again: alibis were checked; forensic evidence was gathered and compared. Six days later, after an intense interrogation, he finally admitted to eight cases of murder, six cases of attempted murder and a further 31 cases of assault. The S-Bahn murderer had been caught.

Paul Ogorzow is one of history’s least-known serial killers. Apart from a single semi-fictionalised account in German, his crimes have never attracted the attention of criminologists, film-makers, journalists or historians. Yet, though the impulses that drove him were, it seems, purely sexual; his crimes nonetheless provide some important pointers, not only to the ideological prejudices of the age, but also to the very nature of everyday life in Hitler’s capital.

Given that the officers of Berlin’s serious crime unit – the Kriminalpolizei, or ‘Kripo’ – did finally get their man, it may seem churlish to criticise their investigation. But, when one considers that Ogorzow worked for the railways, was known to the police, and that fully four of his eight victims were found within a kilometre of his home, it seems astonishing that it took 10 months – and eight murders – before he was caught.

In mitigation, it should be pointed out that the Kripo faced a number of substantial obstacles in investigating Ogorzow’s crimes. The first was that Berlin’s political masters were unwilling to publicise the murders for fear of fostering panic and negative headlines, so only the bare essentials of each case were allowed into the public domain. A vital source of potential intelligence was thereby sacrificed.

More seriously, there was the blackout, whose restrictions had proved a boon for Berlin’s criminals and a nightmare for its policemen. The upsurge of crime during the blackout was so serious, indeed, that a special police unit was established to combat it. Ogorzow, too, exploited the darkness; stalking his victims and escaping with ease under cover of night. Indeed, even when he was challenged by Kripo officers on one occasion, he was able to abscond into the shadows.

The Kripo was also hindered by the sheer number of corpses that it had to process. Accidental deaths on the railways during the blackout were actually a shockingly common occurrence. In December 1940, for instance, as the Kripo investigation was getting under way, there were 28 deaths registered on the capital’s railways – almost one victim for every day of the month. The vast majority of these were directly attributed to the blackout, being caused by people unwittingly stepping off platforms in the darkness, or being hit by speeding trains whilst crossing unlit tracks and sidings.

The Kripo investigators, therefore, were not only hampered by the fact that their suspect was operating under cover of night, they also found it hard to sift accidental deaths on the railways, or even suicides, from those that might feasibly be considered as murders. The blackout, it seemed, was obstructing them at every turn.

In addition to such hindrances, of course, the Kripo also laboured under a number of prejudices and preconceptions; some broadly German in nature, others more specifically Nazi. The first of these was the inordinate amount of trust invested in anyone wearing a uniform and occupying an official or even semi-official position. This was to prove decisive. Although the victim of one of Ogorzow’s early assaults recalled that her assailant was wearing the overcoat of the German Railways, it does not seem to have occurred to the Kripo until much later that the murderer might actually be an employee of the rail network.

Instead, the Kripo investigators allowed the racial and political prejudices of the time to direct their assessment of who might, or might not, be a suspect. One officer, for instance, suggested that the assailant might be a Jew, explaining himself with the spurious contention that large numbers of Jews were then working on German Railways. Another speculated that the killer might be a British agent.

Others concluded – rather more plausibly – that their suspect might be a foreign labourer. Berlin in the autumn of 1940 was awash with foreign labourers, shipped in – usually against their will – to meet the manpower demands of the city’s industrial and commercial sectors. Not only were Italian, French and Polish labourers a common sight in the factories of the area, therefore, but at nearby Wuhlheide – where one of Ogorzow’s victims had been found – there was also an Arbeitserziehungslager; a concentration camp for foreign workers who had committed offences. It did not take an enormous leap of imagination for the Kripo to conclude that one of those countless labourers might be their culprit. As a result, foreign labourers’ camps were placed under a nightly curfew, requests for information were distributed, and extensive and time-consuming checks were made on the foreign personnel working for the railway.

Indeed, such was the Kripo’s ideological and racial myopia that even when Ogorzow was within their grasp, they seem to have been unable to consider him seriously as a suspect. Rather, he appears to have impressed them. Confident and coherent, he was described as “assiduous and industrious, happily married with two children.” A Nazi Party and SA member to boot, he ticked all their boxes as a solid, upstanding member of German society. As a result, the investigation against him was initially suspended.

Even Ogorzow’s confession betrayed a flavour of the twisted times in which he lived. Firstly, it appears that he had believed that he would be protected from prosecution by a childhood friend who held an officer’s rank in the SS. More sinister still, Ogorzow even claimed that his murderous behaviour had only begun following an unconventional treatment for gonorrhoea carried out on him by a Jewish doctor. Such crude attempts to chime with the zeitgeist, however, cut little ice with the Kripo or with the prosecutors of the Nazi court. Ogorzow was described at his trial as “a killer of a completely cold and calculating nature, who ruthlessly exploited the blackout to satisfy his depraved sexual urges.” No mention was made, by the way, of the bungled Kripo investigation.

By the end of the very same month in which he had committed his last murder, Paul Ogorzow had been tried, convicted and executed by guillotine in Plötzensee prison. Justice, it seemed, had been done. With hindsight, however, it is not hard to conclude that justice might have been done a lot sooner had Hitler’s policemen not been hampered by the exigencies of war, and so grievously blinkered by the prejudices of the Nazi ‘world-view’.

© Roger Moorhouse, 2009

 

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