US vs. Martin Gottfried Weiss, et al
The proceedings against Martin Gottfried Weiss and 39 others at Dachau ended on December 13, 1945, less than a month after they had started. During the 24 days of the trial, the court had heard the oral testimony of over 170 witnesses.
All of the accused were convicted of participating in a "common design" to violate the Laws and Usages of War under the Geneva Convention of 1929 and the Hague Convention of 1907.
The charge that the accused had participated in a "common design" was central to the prosecution case.
In his closing argument on December 12th, the chief prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Denson, JAGD, Trial Judge Advocate, said the following:
If there is no such common design then every man in this dock should walk free because that is the essential allegation in the particulars that the court is trying. As to examination of the specific conduct of each one of the accused, the test to be applied is not did he kill or beat or torture or starve but did he by his conduct, aid or abet the execution of this common design and participate in it?
I would like to call the court's attention and wish to emphasize the fact that the offense with which these 40 men stand charged is not killing, beating, and torturing these prisoners but the offense is aiding, abetting, encouraging and participating in a common design to kill, to beat, to torture, and to subject these persons to starvation.
It may be, because of the testimony submitted here, that this court may be inclined to determine the guilt or innocence of these forty men by the number of men they killed, or by the number of men they beat, or the number they tortured. That is not the test that is to be applied in this case.
We are not trying these men for specific acts of misconduct. We are trying these men for participation in this common design... as a matter of fact, this case could have been established without showing that a single man over in that dock at any time killed a man. It would be sufficient, may it please the court, to show that there was in fact a common design, and that these individuals participated in it, and that the purpose of this common design was the killings, the beatings, and the tortures and the subjection to starvation.
The prosecution did not claim that the accused had participated in a conspiracy. Nor did they present evidence that any two or more of the accused had ever gotten together and agreed to put into effect a policy of mistreating and killing a large number of the inmates. Instead, the prosecution proved that, although the accused did not all know each other and they were not all at Dachau at the same time, the system remained the same, and as each of them undertook the duties of his position, he adhered to the system.
The prosecution charged that there was a general system of cruelty and murder in the camp and that this system was practiced with the knowledge and active participation of the accused, all of whom were considered members of the staff.
According to lead prosecutor Lt. Col. William Denson, between 1940 and 1945, there were 161,930 prisoners processed through the Dachau main camp and over 25,000 prisoners had died during this period. These numbers came from "The Official Army Report," which estimated the number of deaths in the first four months of 1945 at 14,700. This was sufficient proof that there was a common design to exterminate the prisoners in Denson's opinion.
According to the testimony of Dr. Franz Blaha, a prosecution witness who was a former prisoner in the camp, there was a typhus epidemic in the main camp, starting in December 1944, which accounted for the large number of the deaths between January 1945 and April 1945. Dr. Blaha testified that the staff at Dachau had done nothing to stop the epidemic. (Germany did not have a typhus vaccine, nor DDT, which were both available in America.)
According to the Dachau camp records, there were 13,158 deaths in the main Dachau camp in the first four months of 1945, most of them due to typhus. In the month of May, 1945 an additional 2,226 Dachau prisoners died after the camp was liberated, in spite of the excellent care given to them by American military doctors. There were 196 more deaths in June before the typhus epidemic ended. So there was a total of 15,580 deaths in just the main camp during the first six months of 1945 alone, and most of these deaths were due to typhus.
The prosecution proved its case by showing that (1) the accused had held a position in the camp in which his duties involved the administration of the camp system or that (2) the accused had used his position of authority to mistreat the prisoners. If the accused held the title of Commandant or Deputy Commandant or SS Doctor, his position alone was enough to prove his guilt under the "common plan" charge. The guards were found guilty of aiding and abetting the common plan because they prevented the prisoners from escaping the system.
With regard to the Kapos who were prisoners in the camp themselves, the prosecution contended that anyone who was engaged in any administrative or supervisory capacity was a member of the camp "staff" because they had been appointed by and had taken their orders from the SS. All of the Kapos on trial (Emil Erwin Mahl, Willy Tempel, Fritz Becher and Christof Ludwig Knoll) were also found guilty of participating in the "common design."
Of the 40 men convicted in the first "Dachau trial," who were sentenced on December 13, 1945, thirty-six were sentenced to death by hanging and 28 of these sentences were carried out. One of the accused, Peter Betz, was given a life sentence at hard labor.
Lausterer, Gretsch and Schoepp were each sentenced to 10 years in prison. Lausterer was a guard in the camp and Gretsch and Schoepp were both guards on transports of prisoners to Dachau. The rest of the Dachau guards, who were no less guilty, had escaped before the liberation of the camp, or had been summarily executed on the day that Dachau was surrendered to the Americans.
No specific charges of cruelty or atrocities were made against Gretsch and Schoepp, but they were nevertheless found guilty of participating in the common design because they had prevented prisoners from escaping. Schoepp was an ethnic German who was a Rumanian citizen in the Rumanian Army; he had been assigned to supervise a transport of prisoners to Dachau and his crime was that he had prevented them from escaping. His sentence was later reduced to 5 years at hard labor.
After all the sentences had been announced, the chief defense attorney, Lt. Col. Douglas Bates, asked permission for Arthur Haulot, a Belgian political prisoner at Dachau, to speak to the court on behalf of the convicted war criminals. His request was denied and the court was adjourned. Haulot was one of the prominent members of the International Committee which had taken over the Dachau camp after Martin Gottfried Weiss and most of the guards had escaped on April 28, 1945. In a Diary, which he had kept while he was a prisoner at Dachau, Haulot wrote about the good treatment he received in the camp. Haulot was deathly ill when he arrived at Dachau, but was nursed back to health.
Although, by all accounts, Martin Gottfried Weiss was a good administrator who was praised by many of the inmates, and he did not personally commit, nor condone, any atrocities in the camp, this did not save him from a death sentence, because his position as Commandant of the camp from Sept. 1, 1942 to the end of October 1943 automatically made him guilty of the "common design" to commit crimes against civilians and members of the armed forces of the Allied countries during war time.
Although Weiss was not in charge of the medical experiments conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher at Dachau, he was considered to be responsible for this crime because he was the Commandant during the time that these experiments took place.
Not to have convicted the Commandant of the notorious Dachau camp, where Jews had been gassed to death, according to an American documentary film that was shown on November 29, 1945 during the proceedings of the Nuremberg IMT, would have been an outrage and a serious miscarriage of justice.
While the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal at Dachau were in progress, truckloads of American soldiers arrived daily, on the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to see the gas chamber. However, Weiss was not charged with any crime related to the homicidal gas chamber in the crematorium building at Dachau. Weiss was only charged with crimes against the Allies and the names and nationality of the victims of the gas chamber were unknown. According to "The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army," the staff at Dachau had destroyed the most important camp records three weeks before the camp was liberated.
Major Maurice J. McKeown, another defense attorney, entered a plea for clemency for Commandant Martin Weiss. He told the court that Weiss had lost everything and that his 70-year-old mother was dependent on Weiss for her sole support. Clemency was denied and Weiss was hanged on May 29, 1946.
Dr. Hans Eisele was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison at hard labor because he had only been in the Dachau camp for 2 and 1/2 months and there were no specific crimes charged against him. He was brought before the American Military Tribunal again during the Buchenwald case.
The death sentences of Fritz Degelow and Dr. Wilhelm Witteler were commuted to 20 years in prison.
The death sentences of Otto Schulz, Emil Erwin Mahl, and Peter Betz were commuted to 15 years in prison.
The death sentences of Sylvester Filleböck, Friedrich Wetzel, and Dr. Fridolin Puhl were commuted to 10 years in prison.
The German federal prison at Landsberg am Lech was converted into War Criminals Prison #1 in December 1945. Nazi war criminals, including 110 men convicted at Nuremberg and also the men convicted at Dachau, were imprisoned at Landsberg, the same prison where Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf while he was incarcerated there following his failed Putsch in 1923.
Between 1946 and 1951, there was a total of 284 executions at Landsberg. The men who were hanged at Landsberg had been convicted at Nuremberg or Dachau between 1945 and 1948.
The convicted war criminals had only themselves to blame, according to the Allied victors. The Germans had been adequately warned - several times.
The following quote is from an article in the three-volume Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, written by Ben Ferencz, the young Jewish soldier who was put in charge of gathering the evidence of German war crimes for the Allies after the war:
On November 1, 1943, as the tides of World War Two began to turn, leaders of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union convened in Moscow. Germany had been put on notice in 1941 and 1942 that perpetrators of war crimes would be held to personal account "through the channel of organized justice." The earlier warnings were renewed as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Marshal Joseph Stalin issued a solemn "Declaration of German Atrocities."
During the first 6 years of Hitler's regime, from 1933 to 1939, the Landsberg prison had been a Memorial Site in honor of Hitler. Over 4,000 visitors came to the prison to pay homage to Hitler, and ceremonies for the Hitler Youth were held there. The last German war criminals were released from Landsberg prison in 1957. Today, the Landsberg facility is still a prison and tourists are not welcome.
The 28 condemned men from the first Dachau trial were hanged at Landsberg and those whose bodies were not claimed were buried in unmarked, numbered graves in the cemetery near the Spöttingen chapel on the prison grounds. This cemetery was designated as a protected historical site in 1988 and the graves are currently maintained at German tax payers' expense.
Among the graves is that of Otto Moll, the notorious SS man who was accused of throwing live babies into a burning pit at Auschwitz. In the first Dachau trial, Moll was not charged with any crimes committed at Auschwitz; he was charged and convicted of participating in a "common plan" to violate the Laws and Usages of War because he was the leader of a death march from a sub-camp to the main Dachau camp in the last days of the war; his crime was that he had prevented the prisoners from escaping from the march.
In his memoirs entitled "By the Neck until Dead: The gallows of Nuremberg," 2nd Lt. Stanley Tilles wrote that Martin Gottfried Weiss was pronounced dead at 11:46 a.m. on May 29, 1946, and his adjutant, Rudolf Heinrich Suttrop, was pronounced dead at 10:54 a.m. on May 28, 1946.
The photo below shows the gallows at Landsberg. The condemned prisoners faced the prison cell that was occupied by Hitler in 1923.
The Gallows at Landsberg faced Hitler's former prison cell
This page was last updated on September 9, 2009