Suben Workhouse Prison

Country Austria
GPS 48° 24' 44.24724" N, 13° 25' 57.28764" E
Address Kirchenplatz 1, 4975 Suben, Austria
Dates Active 1787 – current

Channel Islander Imprisoned in Suben Prison:
William Stanley Canute Cordrey


By Roderick Miller

Only one Channel Islander, William Cordrey, is known to have been incarcerated in Suben Workhouse Prison (Arbeitshaus Suben, Strafanstalt Suben, Justizanstalt Suben), located in the town of Suben in the Schärding district of Austria. The main buildings of Suben Prison were built in the middle of the 11th century and served as a cloister until the late 18th century. In 1932 the name of the prison was officially changed to Arbeitshaus or ‘workhouse’, and the institution was used as a place of forced labour for repeat offenders. At the time, Austria was still an independent social democracy, and a request by the director for permission to use rubber clubs on the prisoners was denied. By 1938 however, Austria was annexed by the Nazis and ceased to exist as an independent country, becoming instead subordinate to the German Reich as the state of ‘Ostmark’. The name ‘workhouse’ was maintained in the Nazi era, but as with all prisons in the Third Reich, Suben Workhouse Prison incarcerated criminal and political prisoners.

William Cordrey was transferred from Kematen Forced Labour Camp to Suben at the end of 1944 or early 1945. By that time the prison was severely overcrowded, up from 350 at the start of the war to over 700 prisoners. His prisoner record card from Suben notes that he was only allowed to perform ‘light work’ indoors, which shows that his poor physical condition was not only noted by the prison officials, but that they actually took measures to prevent his condition worsening. It is unlikely that Eastern European prisoners received similarly favourable treatment.

Suben Workhouse Prison incarcerated political prisoners from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, including the Channel Islands, Belgium, France, Greece, Holland, Italy, Poland and Yugoslavia. The prison made them perform forced labour in the manufacture of weapons, a typical Nazi violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. For purposes of secrecy, the prison was called the ‘Brauch Company’ or ‘Brauch Engineering’ in all official documents. Prisoners made conducting wire, cables, special parts and armatures for the production of Messerschmitt military aircraft such as the Me 262 fighter jet. A small portion of the money paid by Messerschmitt to the prison was paid to prisoner forced labourers as a pittance — most forced labourers under the Nazis (except for Jews) were in fact paid, although the amounts were absurdly small — and the lion’s share of the profits were divided up between Suben Prison and the Nazi Party (NSDAP). The Suben Prison invoices to Messerschmitt for the single month of March 1945 are for 67,737 marks, which is the equivalent of around 250,000 British pounds sterling today. Using the March 1945 invoices as a basis, Suben Prison and the Nazi Party were making 3 million pounds a year (in today’s currency) by exploiting the labour of prisoners for the illegal manufacture of weapons.

Erich Zanzinger, the director of Suben Prison from 1955 to 1982, published a 26-page history of the prison in 1984. Zanzinger breaks the history down into specific periods that he saw as significant, but rather than treating the Nazi era in Austria (1938 –1945) as a separate period, he covers the era from 1932 to 1974 as if it were a consistent and uninterrupted historical era — as if the Nazi annexation of Austria and the Second World War were of little significance to the history of the prison. Zanzinger makes some additional assertions that are questionable by today’s standards:

…it seems that the prisoners felt safer in custody than if they were free. They had regular work, were not subject to being drafted into the military, had halfway decent food and shelter, so that for example in the first half year of 1944 only 5 prisoners escaped…

Interpreting a low number of escape attempts to mean that the prisoners preferred prison to freedom calls into question the historian’s motives for writing something of this nature. Zanzinger then proceeds on the next page to contradict his own statement by pointing out that in 1943, 53 Suben prisoners were forcibly conscripted into the Germany Wehrmacht and in March 1945, a number of Suben prisoners were forcibly conscripted into the Volkssturm, a group of untrained and poorly-armed teenagers and pensioners thrown together by the Nazis in the last hour as a desperate attempt to defend the homeland.

Zanzinger concedes that Suben Prison incarcerated political prisoners — although he only admits to there having been 20 of them — something completely lacking on the current (April 2017) official Austrian government website for Suben Prison. [2]. The site gives a detailed 546 word account of the history of the prison, but spares a mere 50 words for the entire Nazi era:

‘n 1945, after the invasion of US troops in Suben, the Americans believed that the prisoners were all political prisoners and set them free. The prisoners openly rebelled in the town and mistreated the prison personnel, and one of the officials even died. Only after the victors realised their mistake did they take measures to end this dreadful state of affairs.

This text uses terms that, by current standards of historical interpretation, can be seen as closer to Nazi-era terminology than to a pro-democratic interpretation of events: ‘invasion’ (Einmarsch) instead of ‘liberation’ (Befreiung); ‘victors’ (Siegermächte) instead of ‘allies’ (Alliierten); and ‘dreadful state of affairs’ (Unwesen) — ‘dreadful’ indeed for the Nazis, but probably a rather positive experience for the prisoners. Worse yet, the description on the current Austrian government website portrays the prisoners as ‘the perpetrators’ and the Nazi prison personnel and townspeople as ‘the victims’. There is little doubt that the inhabitants of the small town Suben (population 1,114 in 1939) were frightened by the allied troops and their subsequent liberation of over 700 prisoners, but this is hardly grounds for portraying a largely pro-Nazi populace as ‘victims’ 40 years later.

Suben Workhouse Prison was liberated by US troops on 3 May 1945. According to Zanzinger, the Americans disarmed the Suben prison guards and the prisoners were allowed to run the prison, placing the prison personnel in cells where one of them later died. By the time the prison was again in the hands of the post-Nazi Austrian government in July 1945 (again according to Zanzinger), there were only 46 prisoners left in the prison. Actual Suben Prison documents in the archives of the International Tracing Service contradict this account, in that a release list of 28 non-German prisoners shows consistently staggered prison release dates ranging from the day of liberation, 3 May 1945, through mid-July 1945.

For several years, the allied Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) used Suben Prison to incarcerate suspected Nazis, such as the notorious Nazi doctor and convicted euthanasia murderer Hans Czermak [3], as well as lesser criminals. The Suben ‘workhouse’ continued its pre-Nazi function as a prison and dropped the ‘workhouse’ title for the standard form of ‘prison’ in 1975. Suben Prison continues to operate today with a capacity for 289 prisoners.

William Cordrey was the last Nazi-era prisoner to be released from Suben Prison on 13 July 1945, and probably the last Channel Islander of all to still remain incarcerated in a German prison at this late date. Cordrey maintained through his life, as evidenced in his compensation testimonial in 1965, that Suben Prison was an external work commando or sub-camp administered by Mauthausen Concentration Camp. This view was apparently held by many of the Suben prisoners [6], but has not been verified by documentation. It is possible, however, that the Mauthausen administration was responsible for transferring non-German prisoners to Suben to exploit as forced labour. Like many of those who survived, William Cordrey suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of his life. There is no memorial at Suben Prison or in the town of Suben for the political prisoners who were unjustly incarcerated and forced to perform labour there.


[1] ‘…scheinbar fühlten sich die Gefangenen in der Haft sicherer als in der Freiheit. Sie hatten geregelte Arbeit, keinen Kriegsdienst, auch eine halbwegs erträgliche Verpflegung, sodaß z.B. im ersten Halbjahr 1944 nur 5 Häftlinge flüchteten…’ Zanzinger, p. 158 (see Sources below).

[2] From the official Austrian government website for Suben Prison: ‘1945, nach dem Einmarsch der US-Truppen in Suben, hielten diese die Inhaftierten für politische Gefangene und ließen diese frei. Die Gefangenen rebellierten im Ort, misshandelten das Aufsichtspersonal und es kam sogar zu einem Todesfall unter den Beamten. Erst als die Siegermächte ihren Irrtum erkannten, setzten diese dem Unwesen ein Ende.’ Archived link.

[3] Not to be confused with the paediatrician Hans Czermak (b. 1913, d.1989). Nazi doctor Hans Czermak (b. 1892) was sentenced in December 1949 to 8 years’ hard labour for ‘distant complicity’ in the murder of upwards of 1000 patients. Pleading for his elderly mother’s sake and his own ‘poor health’, he was released from prison in September 1950. Czermak’s attempts to get his medical license back failed and he worked for Austrian pharmaceutical companies until his death in 1975.

[4] See pp. 538-539 in Rafetseder (below in Sources) for a description of a Greek political prisoner of Suben’s description of the prison as a sub-camp of Mauthausen.

Further Reading

Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.

Sources

Klee, Ernst: Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945. 2nd expanded edition, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2003, p. 99.

The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO 950/2292 (Cordrey)

Oberösterreichisches Landesarchiv, Documents of the Schärding District, 1945 I, Invoice from Suben Prison to the Messerschmidtwerke Augsburg-Regensburg.

Rafetseder, Hermann: NS-Zwangsarbeits-Schicksale. Erkenntnisse zu Erscheinungsformen der Oppression und zum NS-Lagersystem aus der Arbeit des Österreichischen Versöhnungsfonds, Wiener Verlag für Sozialforschung in EHV Academicpress GmbH, Bremen, 2014 (in German). Link.

Verlag für Sozialpolitik, Wirtschaft und Statistik (publishers): Amtliches Gemeindeverzeichnis für das Großdeutsche Reich auf Grund der Volkszählung 1939, expanded 2nd edition, Berlin, 1944.

Wiener Archives, London (International Tracing Service documents)
(Cordrey) Suben 1133826, 11383827, 11936707.

Zanzinger, Erich: ‘Die Geschichte der Strafvollzugsanstalt Suben’ (‘The History of Suben Prison’) in Österreichische Heimatsblätter, 1984, Issue 2, pp. 157–161. Link.

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