US vs. Martin Gottfried Weiss, et al
War crimes office at Dachau
The case against Martin Gottfried Weiss and 39 others opened in a courtroom at Dachau on November 15, 1945 with a formal reading of the charges against the accused. The prosecution team, headed by Lt. Col. William Denson, had spent all of six weeks preparing for the trial. The photo above shows the war crimes office at Dachau. The defense team, headed by Lt. Col. Douglas T. Bates, was not allowed to see any of the documents used by the prosecution before the trial.
At the opening of the trial, Lt. Col. Douglas T. Bates made a motion in which he questioned the jurisdiction of the court, based on the following arguments:
1. The accused are not described as enemy nationals and the indictment discloses no offense that the court is competent to try.
2. Neither the names and nationalities of the victims nor whether the nations of the victims were at war with Germany at the material time have been disclosed.
3. The accused are prisoners of war.
The court denied the motion by Lt. Col. Bates based on its argument that:
1. The accused have admitted to being enemy nationals.
2. None of the victims was an American.
3. A sentence may be pronounced against a prisoner of war for an offense committed while he was a combatant and not while he is a prisoner of war.
Horace R. Hansen, the author of the book entitled "Witness to Barbarism," wrote the following about the demeanor of the accused on the opening day of the trial:
The 40 defendants are a surly, defiant lot; they sit stiffly in four stepped-up rows of chairs, their defense lawyers, headed by Colonel Bates, at a large table in front of them. Each defendant is asked in turn by the court whether he understands the charges and is ready for trial. Each says "yes," pleading "not guilty" in a firm voice. When asked their nationality, they shout "Deutsch!" with obvious pride.
But before the accused were allowed to stand and enter their pleas of "Not guilty," the defense team made a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds the indictment was so vague that it failed to inform each of the accused with sufficient certainty of the case that he will have to answer, and that the charges are bad for duplicity of each of the accused, and the charges should be particularized sufficiently to identify the place, time, and subject matter of the alleged offense.
The accused had been charged with participating in a "common design" to violate the Laws and Usages of War according to the Geneva Convention, but there were no specific charges of murder or cruelty listed against any of the men in the dock.
The lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Denson, responded to the motion to quash the charges by saying that the charges are of a continuing nature and that the "common design" in which the accused willingly participated clearly stated what they were being called upon to defend. The charges against the accused alleged their participation in the running of the camp, pursuant to a common design, which included the subjection of described prisoners to stated wrongful acts at stated treatment places.
Lt. Col. Denson told the court that in Hitler's dictatorship there could not be an agreement as in a conspiracy, and that ultimately the defense of superior orders is not applicable because in that case only Hitler himself could be found guilty. This was the reason for the charge of a common design in which all the accused willingly participated.
The defense then made a motion to dismiss the charges, based upon the proseuction's plan to call codefendants as witnesses, since the antagonistic testimony which would be offered by some of them could prejudice the case of all of the accused.
The prosecution argued that the charges allege that all of the accused participated willingly in the common design so that the defenses of each of the accused could not be antagonistic.
The defense then asked for specifics about what Martin Gottfried Weiss was charged with, but the President of the Court interrupted and ruled that the motion to quash the charges was denied. The prosecution was thus saved from the embarrassment of having to admit that Weiss had not personally committed any crimes.
Rudolf Heinrich Suttrop on the witness stand
Rudolf Heinrich Suttrop, shown in the photo above, was the adjutant to Martin Gottfried Weiss. He was convicted and hanged, although there were no specific charges against him. Note the lights for the movie cameras in the photo. Suttrop appears to be wearing the clothes that he had on when he was captured.
In his opening statement before the tribunal, Lt. Col. Denson said the following:
May it please the court, we expect the evidence to show that during the time alleged, a scheme of extermination was in process here at Dachau. We expect the evidence to show that the victims of this planned extermination were civilians and prisoners of war, individuals unwilling to submit themselves to the yoke of Nazism. We expect to show that these people were subjected to experiments like guinea pigs, starved to death, and at the same time worked as hard as their physical bodies permitted; that the conditions under which these people were housed were such that disease and death were inevitable. Further, we expect to show that during the time that Germany overran Europe, these people were subjected to utterly inhuman treatment, and that each of these accused constituted a cog in this machine of extermination.
Lt. Col. Denson was not referring to Hitler's systematic plan to exterminate all the Jews, but rather to a "common plan" to exterminate all the prisoners in all the concentration camps in Germany because these prisoners had resisted the Nazis.
During the war and in the immediate aftermath, all of the Nazi concentration camps were called "extermination camps" (Vernichtungslager) by the Allies. The accused at both the Nuremberg IMT and the Dachau Military Tribunals all said that they were hearing the term Vernichtungslager for the first time.
At the Nuremberg IMT, SS officer Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, a witness for the defense, was asked a question about Dachau by the prosecutor. Morgen was an attorney and a judge who was authorized in 1943 by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the head of all the camps, to investigate murder and corruption in the camps. The following is from his testimony on 8 August 1946 at Nuremberg:
Q. The camp at Dachau was here described as an extermination camp by the prosecution and by certain witnesses. Is that true?
A. I believe that from my investigation from May to July, 1944, I knew the concentration camp Dachau rather well. I must say that I had the opposite impression. The concentration camp Dachau was always considered a very good camp, a rest camp, among the prisoners, and I actually did gain this impression.
Lt. Col. Denson's theory was that the Dachau camp staff had had a choice: they could have refused to work in an extermination camp and then they would have been transferred to the front lines or to some other work. The inmates had shown that they had had the courage to defy the Nazis, so the SS soldiers on the camp staff should also have had the courage to disobey superior orders and this would have ended the concentration camp system. It was pointed out during the proceedings that even in Germany, a soldier had the right to refuse to obey an illegal order; the SS men in the extermination camps should have known that they were obeying orders, with regard to Prisoners of War, that were illegal according to the Geneva convention. They should also have anticipated that illegal combatants, who did not have the protection of the 1929 Geneva Convention, would be given the same rights as POWs in the Geneva Convention of 1949.
After the opening statement, the trial of Martin Gottfried Weiss and 39 others began with testimony about the death train that was discovered by soldiers of the US Seventh Army when they liberated Dachau. Although this was perhaps the worst atrocity in the Dachau camp, none of the accused was specifically charged with committing this crime. Two years later, when the Buchenwald case was prosecuted by Lt. Col. Denson, an SS soldier named Hans Merbach was charged with responsibility for the death train.
Col. Lawrence Ball, an officer in the Army Medical Corps, was the first witness for the prosecution; he testified that he had arrived at Dachau two days after the camp was liberated and had seen 38 cars with 10 to 20 corpses in each car. That would mean that there were between 380 and 760 dead bodies on the train. Most accounts of the death train say that there were 39 to 50 cars with an exact total of 2,310 bodies, allegedly counted by the American military.
On cross examination, Col. Ball admitted that he didn't know if this train had just arrived at Dachau or if it was preparing to leave Dachau. He also didn't know whether the dead prisoners came under the jurisdiction of this court since only foreign nationals were included. Crimes against German citizens were tried later by German courts. There were no other witnesses regarding the train and the prosecution quickly moved on.
The gassing of Dachau prisoners was not included in the charges against Martin Gottfried Weiss and the 39 others, but in spite of this, Dr. Franz Blaha, a former prisoner at Dachau, was allowed to mention the gas chambers in his testimony. Under the rules of the American Military Tribunal, any and all testimony was allowed, even if it had nothing to do with the charges or the men in the dock at Dachau.
Dr. Franz Blaha testified that he had worked as a surgeon in the camp, but after he said that he didn't want to do any more operations, he was punished by being "sent to the death chamber where autopsies were performed." Dr. Blaha claimed that he had performed "six to seven thousand autopsies" at Dachau.
During the proceedings at Dachau, Dr. Blaha gave testimony, regarding the bodies upon which he had performed autopsies. The following is from the trial transcript, as quoted in "Justice at Dachau" by Joshua M. Greene:
We took the skin from the chest and back, then used chemicals to treat the skin. Then the skins were placed outside in the sun and parts were cut for saddles, breeches, gloves, house slippers, ladies' handbags.
In answer to a question about what had happened to these items, Dr. Blaha said:
They were prepared and sent either to SS schools or given to some of the SS men.
According to Dr. Blaha's testimony, these items were made from human skin while a man named Bruno, and then Willy Mirkle, were in charge of the autopsies. Neither of these men were on trial and no items allegedly made from human skin were ever presented as evidence, nor was any forensic report introduced by the prosecution. Blaha's testimony was corroborated by a confession obtained by Lt. Paul Guth from Dr. Wilhelm Witteler, one of the doctors at Dachau who was among the accused.
Dr. Witteler testified that he had been forced to sign this confession, but Lt. Guth testified, under direct examination by the prosecutor, that no coercion had been used on any of the men that he had interrogated.
Dr. Blaha testified that Wilhelm Welter was responsible for the deaths of prisoners at Dachau, but he also stated that the only deaths that he could remember had occurred in 1944, which was a year after Welter had left the Dachau main camp to work for six months in the Friedrichshafen sub-camp of Dachau. Welter was found guilty by the American Military Tribunal and was executed by hanging on May 29, 1946.
Wilhelm Welter was among the nine men who were singled out for a "Special Case Report" in a book entitled "The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army Released Within Days After the Liberation." According to the Report, Wilhelm Welter "was very brutal and was accused of killing many prisoners and prisoners of war."
The 40 men who were selected for the first proceeding of the American Military Tribunal at Dachau had been chosen to represent every job and department in the camp, including the Commandant, the Gestapo, protective custody staff, the labor allocation staff (Arbeitseinsatz), medical department heads, and the crematory and administrative chiefs. Wilhelm Welter was with the labor allocation department; he was the Arbeitsdienstführer (Work Service Leader) at Dachau, which did not give him the authority to kill the prisoners.
In January 1945, Welter was sent to the Eastern front to fight with the Waffen SS. According to the U.S. Seventh Army report, Welter was "subsequently wounded and returned to Germany to train the HJ Birgsau Allgue. From there, he made a trip to Dachau on 7 May 1945, and was apprehended on 9 May 1945. Subject's interrogation revealed the hideout place of 300 higher SS officers in the mountains." The 7th of May was the day that the German Army surrendered to the Allies, but it was not explained in the Army Report why Welter returned to Dachau on that day.
This page was last updated on April 7, 2008