The Butcher of Poland

by Garry O’Connor

Condemned to death and hanged in 1947, Hans Frank’s public repentance was unique among the leading Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg. One psychiatrist pointed out Frank’s ‘beatific tranquillity merely hid his own tensions’. But what of such carefully acted out piety? Didn’t this hastily cultivated yet forceful and theatrical piety have something about it which was so patently flimsy compared to the much more formidable integrity and long studied piety of Pope Pius XII?

Both had their roots in South German and Italian theatricality. In the way Frank called attention to himself on every possible occasion he was no ordinary criminal. He was not only criminal in his acts and attitudes, which he acknowledged, but also he flaunted, in an egotistic, nihilistic way, a vanity of evils which today remain a significant part of our culture. Unlike Ribbentrop, who lamented he would never be able to write his ‘beautiful memoirs’, Frank wasted no time during the trial and had gone ahead. He composed his testament, Facing the Gallows, with a dedication from Goethe’s Werther, in quoting from which he subtly changed the wording to serve his self-serving account of ‘former and partial guilt’ – to make it sound as if God endorsed it, which was not in the sense of the original.

And now, faced with execution, commented the much younger but level-headed psychiatrist, Frank really felt spiritually liberated as never before. All he needed was sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, the fresh-faced and pleasant psychiatrist might have commented. His dreams took him ‘beyond the confines of his cell’, he noted. Frank transfixed him. He had not made up his mind as to whether Frank was sincere or not: he recounted that he saw ‘Vast vistas of endless sea, and high mountains of sky….’

Before the trial Frank had dreamed of Hitler, and that made him doubly resolved to take an upright stand and admit common guilt. It was all so realistic. Sometimes he had nocturnal emissions. In one dream he was stood at the seashore watching the waves, and then a girl appeared – he thought it was his daughter – then with the mountains and the yodelling and the vast spaces he awoke with an incredible feeling of emotional relief (this implies it was one of his sex dreams). He went on talking about how independent one could be of the restrictions of the environment if one had inner fortitude.

Unfortunately this Faust had not just an hour but nearly six months to wait in a state of suspended guilt and contrition before the crunch: his stand in the dock. Would he last the course? Would he be able to prove the depth and integrity of true penitence?

How long would it last? And had the lawyer and politician, now still intent on controlling the salvation of his body and soul, finally and forever renounced evil?

Facing the Gallows was later introduced and promoted by Gertrude, his wife, who remained loyal to the spirit of his life. It became a bestseller. Winifred Wagner found his account of Hitler ‘the best character study of Hitler that I have ever read’. It was to win him thousands of posthumous admirers, while some claimed, as one 1952 letter put it, ‘he was a great European in the finest sense of the word’. It was perhaps the beginning of a revisionism which is still a marked part of German culture, most recently in the works of Bernhard Schlink (The Reader).


Hans Frank (1900–46), was a German politician and lawyer, serving as Governor-General of Poland during the Second World War, having fought in the Great War. He studied economics and jurisprudence. In 1921 he joined the German Workers’ Party (which was later the Nazi Party), and became the party’s chief legal counsel and Hitler’s personal lawyer. After the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933, Frank was awarded several important posts, including President of the Reichstag and Minister of Justice in the Nazi government. In 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, Frank was appointed Governor-General, becoming the supreme chief of occupied Poland’s civil administration. A proponent of Nazi racist ideology, Frank oversaw the execution of hundreds of thousands of Poles, the confiscation of Polish property, the enslavement of Polish workers, who were then shipped to Germany, and the herding of most of Poland’s Jews into ghettos prior to extermination. Frank remained as Governor-General until the end of the war, although Hitler stripped him of his other posts in 1942. He was captured by US Army troops on 4 May 1945, and was indicted for trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and on 1 October 1946 was sentenced to hang.


Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. He has published two works on Hans Frank. His play The Butcher of Poland, published by CentreHouse Press, is available on Amazon Kindle and most other ebook platforms.