American Military Tribunal at Dachau
Introduction to the Dachau trials
Although most Americans are familiar with the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, at which 22 top-level German war criminals were prosecuted after World War II ended, few people today are aware that there were American Military Tribunal proceedings going on simultaneously in a building inside the former Dachau concentration camp complex. The "Dachau trials" were conducted by the American military specifically to punish the administrators and guards at the concentration camps that were liberated by American soldiers and to educate the public about the unbelievable crimes committed in these horror camps.
Between November 1945 and December 31, 1947, there were 489 cases brought before the American Military Tribunal at Dachau. There was a total of 1,672 persons who were tried; 1,416 of them were convicted and then sent to War Criminals Prison #1 at Landsberg am Lech for execution or incarceration. There were 297 death sentences, and 279 sentences to life in prison. Between 1946 and 1951 there were 284 death sentences carried out at Landsberg, which included the death sentences at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal.
The 1,672 accused war criminals who faced the American Military Tribunal at Dachau had been selected from a group of 3,887 people who were initially accused. The last of those who were not put on trial were finally released from their imprisonment in War Crimes Enclosure No. 1 at Dachau in August 1948. By 1958, the last of the German war criminals, convicted at Dachau, had been released from the War Criminals Prison #1 in Landsberg.
According to Robert E. Conot, author of "Justice at Nuremberg," the idea of bringing the German war criminals to justice was first voiced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on October 7, 1942, when he declared: "It is our intention that just and sure punishment shall be meted out to the ringleaders responsible for the organized murder of thousands of innocent persons in the commission of atrocities which have violated every tenet of the Christian faith." Roosevelt was referring to atrocities committed in the concentration camps, beginning in 1933; most of the war crimes that were prosecuted by the American Military Tribunals at Dachau had not yet been committed.
The Declaration of St. James on January 13, 1942 announced British plans for war crimes trials even before the British BBC first broadcast the news of the gassing of the Jews in June 1942. On December 17, 1942, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told the House of Commons: "The German authorities are now carrying into effect Hitler's oft repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe."
On October 26, 1943, the United Nations War Crimes Commission, composed of 15 Allied nations, met in London to discuss the trials of the German war criminals which were already being planned. That same year, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin issued a joint statement, called the Moscow Declaration, in which they agreed to bring the German war criminals to justice.
The United States participated in war crimes trials in Europe under three jurisdictions: the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, the U.S. Military Tribunals at Nuremberg, and the U.S. Army courts at Dachau. The authority for the proceedings of all three jurisdictions derived from the Moscow Declaration, called the Declaration of German Atrocities, which was released on November 1, 1943. This declaration, which was made long before many of the war crimes were committed, expressed the Allied plan to arrest and bring to justice Axis war criminals.
Even before the start of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and the American Military Tribunal at Dachau, the first trial of German war criminals in the U.S. zone of Germany was held between October 8 and October 15, 1945 when staff members of Hadamar, a clinic near Limberg, Germany, were put on trial.
The following quote is from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The 1945 Hadamar Trial (October 8-15, 1945) was the first mass atrocity trial in the U.S. zone of Germany following World War II.
In the first months of occupation, American trials had focused solely on classical violations of international law, principally upon the murders of captured Allied service personnel which had occurred in the last months of the war. Yet, the discovery in late March 1945 of the "euthanasia" facility Hadamar near Limburg on the Lahn in west central Germany riveted American attention back home, and galvanized U.S. military authorities to undertake their first efforts to adjudicate crimes associated with the systematic persecutory policies of Nazi Germany.
Hadamar had been a "euthanasia" facility since 1941. Between January and August of that year, some 10,000 institutionalized mentally and physically disabled persons had been gassed there under the auspices of Operation T4. This murderous operation was temporarily halted in August 1941. When it was reinstated in the following summer of 1942, Hadamar medical personnel again began to murder disabled patients. From 1942 until the end of war in May 1945, the facility claimed the lives of an additional 4,400 victims by lethal overdoses of medication.
American authorities were initially eager to try Hadamar physicians, nurses, and bureaucratic staff in their custody for the murders of the nearly 15,000 German patients killed at the institution, but quickly discovered that they had no jurisdiction to do so under international law. Before the December 1945 promulgation of Allied Control Council Law No. 10, which allowed the elastic charge of "crimes against humanity," introduced in the indictment of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg, U.S. military officials could not try German nationals for murdering their fellow citizens. Before Nuremberg, international law restricted them to prosecute crimes committed against their own service personnel and civilian nationals, and those of their allies, in the territories that they held. American prosecutors, however, found a loophole. Among the Hadamar victims were 476 Soviet and Polish forced laborers, who, suffering from tuberculosis, had been sent to their deaths at the facility in the last months of the war. As these civilian forced laborers were citizens of countries allied to the United States, American prosecutors were able to open proceedings against seven Hadamar defendants associated with the murders of the "Eastern workers." On 15 October 1945, chief prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who would gain fame in the 1970s as Watergate Special Prosecutor, won convictions for all the accused. The six-man U.S. military tribunal prescribed death by hanging for Hadamar chief administrator Alfons Klein, and two male nurses, Heinrich Ruoff and Karl Willig. Because of his advanced age, chief physician Adolf Wahlmann, received a life sentence, which was eventually commuted. Two Hadamar administrative staff received sentences of 35 and 30 years, respectively, while the only female defendant, Irmgard Huber, received the lightest sentence, that of 25 years' imprisonment. On 14 March 1946, Klein, Ruoff, and Willig went to the gallows.
As "euthanasia" crimes were transferred in early 1946 to newly reconstructed German courts, a German tribunal in Frankfurt in early 1947 tried 25 Hadamar personnel, including Dr. Wahlmann and Nurse Huber for the deaths of some 15,000 German patients killed at the facility.
By May 1945, after movie audiences around the world had seen the horrific newsreel films of the liberation of the Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps, with their gruesome scenes of human lamp shades, shrunken heads, gas chambers and emaciated corpses, the American public had a great need for justice to be served before closure could take place.
On August 8, 1945, the Allies signed the London Charter which gave each of the four great powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) jurisdiction over the camp personnel in the concentration camps located in their respective zones of occupation. The London Charter was also the basis for the International Military Tribunal to try the major German war criminals at Nuremberg.
Even before the war was over, the first Allied war crimes trial had taken place in Poland when the camp personnel of the Majdanek concentration camp were tried by the Soviet Union. Immediately following the liberation of Majdanek on July 23, 1944, the former concentration camp for political prisoners and Jews was turned into a camp for captured German soldiers and a few of the former guards and administrative personnel, who were then quickly tried and convicted as war criminals.
A museum was set up at Majdanek so that the atrocities committed by the Germans could become known to the public. America followed this same plan. After the typhus epidemic in the Dachau concentration camp was brought under control in June 1945, the former camp was turned into a prison for German war criminals who were awaiting trial.
A museum was set up by Erich Preuss, one of the former concentration camp prisoners, in the Dachau gas chamber building, so that American soldiers could see the evidence of mass murder committed by the Nazis. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who anticipated that someday there would be people who would deny the Holocaust, made sure that there were numerous eye witnesses to the Dachau gas chamber.
The British, who had liberated Bergen-Belsen after Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler voluntarily turned the camp over to them on April 15, 1945, held the first post-war military tribunal for concentration camp personnel in September 1945 at Lüneberg, Germany.
The Dachau concentration camp was liberated by two divisions of the U.S. Seventh Army on April 29, 1945 and proceedings against the camp personnel began on November 15, 1945, one day after charges were brought against the top German war criminals at Nuremberg and five days before the Nuremberg trial began.
Although Buchenwald was located in the Soviet occupation zone, the infamous concentration camp had been liberated by American troops, which gave the US military the right to prosecute Ilse Koch, the wife of the former Buchenwald Commandant, and 30 members of the Buchenwald staff. Mauthausen was likewise in the Soviet zone of Austria, but it had been officially liberated by American soldiers on May 5, 1945. Flossenbürg was a concentration camp in the American zone in Germany, and it had been liberated by Americans. The labor camp at Dora/Nordhausen, where the Germans were building V-2 rockets, was in the Soviet zone, but it was within the American jurisdiction because it was liberated by American troops.
Today when anyone attempts to deny the Holocaust, he is invariably confronted with the overwhelming amount of testimony in the Nuremberg proceedings. Americans take comfort in knowing that the crimes of the Nazis were proved beyond all doubt and that the guilty were punished. The very word Nuremberg is synonymous with the justice meted out to the German war criminals after World War II.
Much of the information in our history books, about the crimes committed by the Nazis, comes from the testimony of the Jewish and Communist survivors of the camps, who were paid prosecution witnesses at Dachau. The accused at Dachau provided further details in their confessions, obtained by Jewish interrogators, giving us an idea of the enormity of the German war crimes. Among other atrocities, several of the Dachau staff members confessed to the making of leather goods from human skin at Dachau.
Altogether, there were 5 proceedings against groups of concentration camp staff members at the American Military Tribunal at Dachau. In the first four of those cases, 177 staff members of Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Flossenbürg were charged, and all of the accused, without exception, were convicted by a panel of American military officers.
There were 97 death sentences handed down in the first four cases, and 54 of the guilty were sentenced to life in prison; the rest were sentenced to lengthy prison terms at hard labor. The prosecutor, who was responsible for this remarkable feat, was Lt. Col. William Denson, an aristocratic southern gentleman from Alabama. The 100% conviction rate was due to the fact that it was the concentration camp system that was on trial; there was literally no defense for the accused because it could not be denied that the concentration camp system was inherently evil and that everyone in a position of authority in any of the camps was part of that system.
The Nazi concentration camps were unique in the history of the world. While it is true that the Soviet Union had its gulags where millions of their political enemies had been imprisoned and killed since shortly after the Communist Revolution in November 1917, and America had its wartime internment camps for Japanese-American citizens, these camps could in no way be compared to the German concentration camps where gas chambers were used in the implementation of Hitler's plan to systematically kill all the European Jews and others that "the Master Race" considered to be inferior.
The Nazi crimes were beyond the human imagination, unprecedented in the history of mankind. In 1945, there was no German law, nor any international law, that covered the atrocities in the camps or the genocide of the Jews. New laws had to be made after the fact. Col. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg IMT, said in his opening address: "Hence I am not disturbed by the lack of precedent for the inquiry we propose to conduct."
It was not until 1948 that the newly-created United Nations announced a law against genocide. With no existing laws in place, the Allies had to create new international laws in order to convict and punish the guilty.
A new concept of collective guilt was formulated in order to see that justice was done. The basis for the Nuremberg IMT, as well as for the American Military Tribunal at Dachau, was that the German war criminals had participated in a "common design" to commit war crimes. The prosecution had only to prove that the accused had participated in a common plan by virtue of his position on the staff of a concentration camp, whether or not he had personally committed any atrocities. The accused in the "Dachau trials" were not charged with committing any specific crime, but rather with aiding and abetting the commission of crimes in the concentration camp system which was designated by the Allies to be a criminal enterprise.
The basis for the "common plan" theory of guilt was Article II, paragraph 2 of Law Order No. 10 which stated as follows:
2. Any person without regard to nationality or the capacity in which he acted, is deemed to have committed a crime as defined in paragraph 1 of this Article, if he was (a) a principal or (b) was an accessory to the commission of any such crime or ordered or abetted the same or (c) took a consenting part therein or (d) was connected with plans or enterprises involving its commission or (e) was a member of any organization or group connected with the commission of any such crime or (f) with reference to paragraph 1 (a), if he held a high political, civil or military (including General Staff) position in Germany or in one of its Allies, co-belligerents or satellites or held high position in the financial, industrial or economic life of any such country.
According to Robert E. Conot in his book "Justice at Nuremberg," the idea of a "common design" was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Murray C. Bernays, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated with his family to America in 1900 at the age of six. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., a Jew who was the Secretary of the Treasury and one of President Franklin Roosevelt's top advisors, had proposed that the German war criminals should be charged and then executed without a trial. But Bernays said, "Not to try these beasts would be to miss the educational and therapeutic opportunity of our generation. They must be tried not alone for their specific aims, but for the bestiality from which these crimes sprang."
Under this new concept, organizations, as well as individuals, could be charged with war crimes and membership in an organization was enough to convict an individual of a war crime, whether or not that person committed any acts himself. For the Dachau proceedings, the "common design" theory meant that individuals were guilty of crimes committed by others on the staff of a concentration camp even if they didn't serve at the same time. It didn't matter whether or not the crimes allegedly committed by others in a particular concentration camp had ever been proved in a court of law or by a military tribunal; staff members of that camp were presumed to be guilty of these crimes, and they had no defense.
Crimes against Humanity was another new concept which did not exist before the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal began. This new law, which was one of the four categories of crimes described by Allied Control Council Law No. 10, was enacted after the end of World War II. It covered brutalities, cruelties, tortures, atrocities and other inhumane acts, including the murder of six million Jews in the Nazi camps. Some of the top-level war criminals at the Nuremberg IMT were charged with Crimes against Humanity, but this charge was not used in the proceedings against the concentration camp personnel who were tried by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau.
The charge at Dachau was participating in a common design to Violate the Laws and Usages of War, according to the Geneva Convention of 1929 and the Hague Convention of 1907. The Soviet Union had not signed the Third Geneva Convention of 1929, which was the rules of warfare pertaining to Prisoners of War. The Soviet Union did not treat German POWs according to the rules of the convention, neither during nor after the war. Germany had signed the Geneva Convention and charges were brought against the German war criminals at Dachau for violations of this convention with respect to Soviet POWs who were Communist Commissars.
The Geneva Convention specifically stated that after a country had formally surrendered, it was a breach of the convention to once again take up arms. The Allied powers encouraged resistance movements in all the German-occupied countries. The captured resistance fighters were sent to the concentration camps, rather than to a POW camp.
During the Dachau proceedings, concentration camp personnel were charged with crimes against the Laws and Usages of War, according to the Geneva Convention of 1929, for ill treatment of the captured resistance fighters, even though the resistance fighters did not have the protection of the Geneva Convention and they had been incarcerated for a violation of the Geneva Convention themselves.
In March 1945, on the written order of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, captured German soldiers were designated as Disarmed Enemy Forces, rather than Prisoners of War, so that they would not have to be treated according to the Geneva convention. There were 1.7 million German soldiers who surrendered to Eisenhower's Army and they never returned home. They are presumed to have died in "Eisenhower's death camps."
Americans are justifiably proud of our justice system, which guarantees a fair and impartial trial by a jury of one's peers. However, the so-called "Dachau trials" were not trials at all, but the proceedings of a Military Tribunal, conducted by the United States Army, against accused war criminals.
The men in the dock at Dachau were called "the accused" rather than the defendants, and the burden of proof was on them, not the prosecution. The accused were not innocent until proven guilty. Guilt was established before the proceedings began, by interrogators who persuaded the accused, in most cases, to sign a confession. The interrogators at Dachau were Jewish immigrants to the United States who could speak German fluently and could communicate with the Jewish witnesses who spoke Yiddish.
The prosecution witnesses were survivors of the camps who were housed in the former SS barracks at Dachau and paid for their testimony. Hearsay testimony was allowed, and prosecution witnesses were allowed to testify about crimes that they had not seen committed, but had only heard about. The defense was not allowed to argue that a specific crime had not been committed, but only that the accused had not been the perpetrator of that crime.
The accused had the right to remain silent; they were not forced to testify and if they did testify, they were not obligated to do so under oath. However, the court was allowed to draw any inference from the fact that the accused had opted not to testify. The prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judges were all officers in the American military, although the accused were permitted, if they chose, to have a German attorney, whose salary would be paid by the American government.
There was no appeal process, although all of the sentences were reviewed by American military officers and consequently some of the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Only two-thirds of the death sentences, handed down at Dachau, were ever carried out.
The Dachau military tribunals lasted until August 1948 and later included the proceedings against Waffen-SS soldiers in the Malmedy Massacre case, as well as other proceedings against German civilians on charges of killing Allied pilots who were shot down during bombing missions in Germany.
The Military Tribunal at Dachau was particularly important because Dachau was the first of the Nazi "horror camps," and it was the most well known among Americans. The Dachau gas chamber was located less than a quarter of a mile from the courtroom and the tall chimney of the crematorium could be seen through the windows.
The German war criminals, who were quartered in the barracks of the former Dachau concentration camp during the proceedings, were forced to visit the gas chamber building where there was a museum, complete with wax dummies to represent the corpses that were found when the camp was liberated.
Charges against the accused were brought only for crimes committed against Allied nationals, and since the names and nationality of prisoners who was gassed at Dachau were unknown, there were no charges of gassing brought against any of the accused in the Dachau proceedings.
At the end of World War II, over a million Nazis were arrested. As members of the Nazi political party, they were automatically war criminals because the Nazi party had been condemned as a criminal organization by the Allies. The homes of the Nazi party members were taken from them and used for housing by the American military.
Whether members of the Nazi party or not, German soldiers and civilians, who were suspected of committing war crimes, were called war criminals, rather than Prisoners of War or suspects, because they had become war criminals the moment that they committed their alleged crimes, even before they were proved guilty in a court of law.
Most of the Nazis were released after they were "denazified" and forced to pay a fine, but others were held for as long as ten years in "War Crimes Enclosures" which were set up by the Soviet Union, America and Great Britain. The former Dachau concentration camp was designated as War Crimes Enclosure No. 1 and approximately 30,000 German war criminals were interned there after the war; they occupied the exact same barracks where the political prisoners of the Nazis had formerly suffered and died. Most of the German war criminals were held for up to two years or more and then released for lack of evidence. A few committed suicide, rather than face the Jewish interrogators and the American Military Tribunal. Some were released because they were scientists whose skills were needed in America.
The wives and children of the war criminals were interned in separate camps, where they were forced to live in the barracks formerly occupied by the victims of the Nazis. Their homes were confiscated by the American occupation forces and were used to house the Jewish survivors or military personnel. The SS garrison, located right next to the prison camp at Dachau, became an American military base for the next 28 years.
No peace treaty was ever signed between Germany and the United States after World War II. After a few years, Germany became our ally in the Cold War against the Communists. By August 7, 1947, when the case against the staff members at the Dora/Nordhausen labor camp began, the American government had changed its attitude toward the German "war criminals."
The Nordhausen case ended with four of the accused being acquitted and there was only one death sentence handed down. One of the men, who was acquitted, was a German rocket scientist, George Rickhey, who had already been brought to America after the war because of his experience in building V-2 rockets at the Nordhausen camp. Because he was a civilian worker at Nordhausen, he was sent to Dachau to be a prosecution witness, but somehow wound up being charged as a war criminal. After his acquittal, he returned to the United States where he resumed his work on America's new rocket program, along with 1,000 other German scientists brought to America after the war.
Otto Förschner, the former Commandant of Nordhausen, was included in the trial of the Dachau staff members because he had been transferred to one of the Kaufering sub-camps of Dachau, which was evacuated to the main camp just before it was liberated. Although some of the prisoners at Nordhausen spoke highly of him, Förschner was condemned to death because he was responsible for conditions in the Kaufering camp under the "common design" theory.
Martin Gottfried Weiss, who was the Commandant of Dachau from September 1942 until the end of October 1943, was sentenced to death even though there were no specific charges against him. Before the sentencing, Arthur Haulot, a Belgian prisoner at Dachau, asked if he could speak on behalf of the accused but his request was denied. Haulot kept a diary while he was imprisoned at Dachau in which he described how the prisoners were treated well.
The American government stopped the prosecution of German war criminals at Dachau with the Nordhausen case which ended on December 31, 1947, and the proceedings of the U.S. Military Tribunal at Nuremberg ended in 1949. Only 65% of the death sentences handed down at Dachau were ever carried out, and only 40 war criminals who had been sentenced to life in prison were still behind bars in August 1955. Around 120 German war criminals who had been sentenced to terms of 20 years or more had been released within 10 years.
By December 1957, the last of the German war criminals, convicted at Dachau, had been released from the Landsberg am Lech prison. The celebrity war criminals, like Ilse Koch and Sepp Dietrich, were tried again and convicted in German courts for crimes against German citizens during the war. The unlucky ones, who had already been hanged before America became allies with Germany, were totally forgotten, their graves unmarked and untended at Landsberg prison.
War Crimes Enclosure No. 1 at Dachau was closed in 1948 and the wooden barracks were modified to provide housing for German Displaced Persons who had been expelled by the Allies from their homes in what is now the Czech Republic after the war. By 1960, the former concentration camp had become a Memorial Site for the victims of the Nazis and in 1965, the last of the barracks buildings was torn down. Today few visitors are aware that the Dachau camp was in existence for 27 years, but for 15 years of that time, it was occupied by German war criminals or German refugees.
This page was last updated on September 23, 2009