Justice at Dachau
The Trials of an American Prosecutor
(Broadway Books, 2003)
Lecture and audiovisual presentation
by author Joshua M. Greene
For more information, visit:
Stories To Remember
P.O. Box 311, Old Westbury, NY 11568
Tel: (516) 334-0909 Fax: (516) 338-6654
“Justice at Dachau” is an educational program for general audiences. The presentation includes a power point and video screening, author talk, and question & answer period. The program explores a critical yet largely unknown event in the post-Holocaust period—known as the Dachau trials—and tells the story of the chief prosecutor who pursued judgments against Nazi murderers, confronting formidable obstacles and endangering his career and life to ensure due process of law.
Between November 1945 and August 1948, the U.S. army prosecuted Nazi concentration camp administrators arrested in the American zone. The trials took place on the grounds of the Dachau camp and were all but ignored by the world press, which focused on proceedings at Nuremberg sixty-five miles to the north. The main Nuremberg trial brought charges against 22 chieftains of the Nazi party—men who never lifted their guns. At Dachau, 1,600 guards, officers, doctors, kapos, and other war criminals stood trial for personally aiding and conducting acts of starvation, torture, and extermination inside camps Dachau, Mauthausen, Flossenburg and Buchenwald.
Chief prosecutor Denson confronted issues that continue to challenge lawmakers today such as superior orders, degrees of guilt, and the ability of a conquering nation to fairly judge its defeated enemy. If a soldier acts under the orders of his commanding officer, is he not protected against legal recriminations? If a soldier stands guard outside a concentration camp, is he as guilty as those who committed crimes inside the camp? “Justice at Dachau” explores these and other questions through the memories and words of the man who led the prosecution.
William Denson was thirty-two when the army took him from his teaching position at West Point and told him to head up one of history’s largest legal enterprises. At first, the soft-spoken Southern country lawyer refused to believe the evidence: slaughter on such a scale was to his mind not possible. Through discussion with survivors, Denson gradually overcame his incredulity.
“It reached a point,” he says in one interview, “where I could believe most anything.”
For nearly two years Denson led his team through masterful prosecutions, basing his courtroom strategies on recognized conventions of international law. His adversaries on the stand included Dr. Karl Schilling who used prisoners as human guinea pigs in his search for a cure for malaria; August Eigruber, overseer of Mauthausen death camp; and Ilse Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald, who had prisoners killed and their tattooed skins stripped and cured for her collection.
In 1948, when America’s priorities shifted from punishing Nazis to winning Germany’s support against Soviet Russia, Denson’s convictions were overturned in a series of commutations and reversals of sentences. The scandal of those reversals erupted in headlines around the world and led to a Senate subcommittee hearing that exonerated the chief prosecutor and condemned the army’s release of Nazi criminals.
But the subcommittee’s determinations came too late to salvage the harm done to Denson’s reputation with the army. Eventually, the Koch scandal disappeared from newspaper headlines. Denson put the drama behind him for nearly fifty years.
Today, almost a half-century later, special investigators working in the Criminal Justice Department recognize Denson as a hero of universal human rights. The precedents he established inform the work underway in The Hague, Bosnia, and other international courts; and in the last years before his death in 1998 he was at last acknowledged for his achievements at Dachau.
THE POWER POINT AND VIDEO
The audiovisual component of the program provides attendees with images from inside the Dachau courtroom, historic film clips of witnesses and accused, and an opportunity to hear William Denson in interviews. The program begins with a description of war’s end and discovery of the camps, then moves to an explanation of the war crimes program begun in 1945 to bring Nazi perpetrators to justice, and differences between the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and the U.S. Judge Advocate proceedings at Dachau.
The power point looks at key issues that arose in preparing for trial: choice of defense and prosecution teams, establishing proper charges according to recognized conventions, finding credible witnesses, determining evidence, and countering defendants’ pleas of “superior orders.” The program then goes into particulars of the “parent trials:” Dachau, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald.
The program reveals the personal toll that two years of exposure to the crimes of the camps took on the young Southern prosecutor’s health. We examine the outcry that arose when the sentence of Ilse Koch was commuted by the army’s review committee, and discuss the Senate subcommittee hearings that ensued. In the six-minute film that concludes the program, Mr. Denson describes his feelings over having successfully tried 177 accused and his hopes that future generations will be vigilant to protect human rights and speak out when those rights are abused.
Bill Denson lived his faith in the law and never sought personal recognition. He sensed, however, the importance of the trials he was asked to lead and spent more than a half century collecting articles, artifacts, transcripts, photographs, and letters from perpetrators and victims. Through an agreement with Mr. Denson’s widow, author Joshua Greene was able to access that archive, from which much of the material for this audiovisual presentation was created.
No film footage or photographs of atrocities appear in the video. Instead, “survivor art” –drawings made by former inmates of the camps—are used to depict events referenced in the program.
SAMPLE ISSUES AND QUESTIONS IN A PRESENTATION
·ISSUES OF CURRENT WAR CRIMES PROCEEDINGS – Col. Denson confronted perennial themes of justice in the Dachau trials. Lawmakers still grapple today with the same challenges in prosecuting extreme crimes. What can we realistically expect from international tribunals? What risks do we take by infringing on civil rights in the name of defending those rights? How far down the line can we hold people (soldiers, judges, civilians) accountable for participation in a genocidal regime?
· MORAL AND RELIGIOUS ISSUES – William Denson was a devout man of God. He felt the U.S. had an obligation – under international law and under God’s law – to provide the accused with fair trials. It was, nonetheless, his duty to win convictions. Can a victorious army conduct fair trials against its defeated enemies? What role do reconciliation and forgiveness play in war crimes proceedings? Does the South African model make sense in increasingly aggressive – and remote – warfare? What role might religious and spiritual leaders play in the peace process?
· BEHAVIORAL ISSUES – William Denson did not believe that atrocities in the camps were German or historic in origin. Rather, his concern sprang from an intuition that anyone, under the wrong circumstances, could be moved to such unthinkable acts. Among the accused were reputable doctors and outstanding citizens who turned brutal through overexposure to brutality. What lessons emerged from the Dachau trials that can inform our understanding of human behavior?
· PRODUCTION AND EDITORIAL ISSUES – Presentations inevitably provoke questions concerning the reconstruction of historic events. How does an author compress 12,000 pages of trial transcripts into a 350-page book? What are the dangers in oversimplifying complex issues? Are there moral parameters to be respected when dealing with history, or does the artist enjoy licenses unavailable to historians and academics?
COMMENTS ON RECENT PRESENTATIONS
“The Honors Seminar was enriched by your challenging
presentation….Your session was ranked among the most
meaningful of the semester.”
GEORGIA COLLEGE & STATE UNIVERSITY
“There were so many positive comments….Joshua Greene’s powerful compelling presentation of William Denson’s tireless efforts in seeking justice touched many hearts.”
SOUTH TEXAS COLLEGE OF LAW
“Fascinating and informative. The visual material made a vivid impression.”
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY & LITERATURE OF RELIGION
“A powerful, compelling presentation.”
ROSLYN, NEW YORK
“The program was rated one of the best—a very powerful impact on our audience.”
TUCSON JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER
“Compelling…riveting and enormously affecting.”
PLAINVIEW – OLD BETHPAGE PUBLIC LIBRARY
“Long Island audiences are a tough crowd, but this generated a standing ovation.”
CINEMA ARTS CENTRE
HUNTINGTON, NEW YORK
“Mr. Greene speaks to all of us who care about community and compassion.”
UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK
“An important program…exceedingly moving.”
MONSIGNOR TOM HARTMAN, TELICARE
Created by The Authors Guild
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