The Trials of an American Prosecutor
Q & A with author Joshua M. Greene
After three years of reading more than 15,000 pages of trial transcripts and interviewing dozens of surviving participants, Joshua M. Greene wrote this riveting account of the Dachau war crimes trials—the largest yet least-known series of Nazi trials in history. The story of the trials and their chief prosecutor William Denson came to his attention in 1998, one year after Mr. Denson’s death on Long Island. Broadcast of a film based on Mr. Greene’s previous book prompted a call by Mr. Denson’s widow—and a subsequent meeting that revealed a cache of materials in her basement on which this book is based.
Q: What prompted you to undertake such a labor-intensive book?
A: Writing another book on the Holocaust period was the farthest thing from my mind. But when Huschi Denson took me into the basement of her home and switched on the light, it was like discovering Aladdin’s cave. Bill Denson dedicated fifty years—right up to his death—compiling every document, transcript, photograph and personal letter he could find in an effort to bring the story of these trials to the world’s attention. So when Mrs. Denson asked for my help, it felt like a sacred task.
Q: What need does this book fill?
A: Until now, Nuremberg has been the Nazi trial known to most of the world. But the handful of Nazi chieftains tried at Nuremberg never lifted a gun. The henchmen who conducted the torture, starvation, so-called medical experiments, and slaughter were all held at Dachau 65 miles south of Nuremberg. Few people have ever heard of the Dachau trials, yet they were vastly larger in scale than Nuremberg. And the Dachau trials established certain precedents in war crimes law even more effectively than the Nuremberg trials.
Q: What do you feel readers will respond to in this book?
A: The accused on trial are unbelievable characters. Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald," had prisoners beaten to death so she could collect their tattooed skin. Dr. Klaus Schilling murdered hundreds in his so-called research into a cure for malaria. Katzen-Ellenbogen was an American psychologist who set himself up as a privileged prisoner inside a concentration camp and killed prisoners who refused to pay him ransom. Unbelievable. Even more absorbing, however, is reading how Bill Denson risked his life to provide these murderers with due process of law. That was breathtaking.
Q: The book explores Nazi trials that took place more than a half-century ago. Does the book have special relevance today?
A: Front-page relevance. We’re still confronting the issues that challenged Bill Denson at Dachau. How to deal with mass atrocities? Who is entitled to due process of law? What rules govern the pursuit of justice? How much or how little can we expect of international war crimes tribunals? On a more personal level, Bill Denson’s work at Dachau bordered on the spiritual: a country lawyer, with no clue what he was getting himself into, proved there are laws of human behavior that supercede any government’s private agenda. We’re still coping with how to apply that truth on an international scale.
Q: Is there one moment in the book that touched you the most?
A: Denson’s counterpart on the Dachau defense team was a man much like Denson: a God-fearing, patriotic son of the South who was appointed to defend the Nazis. When those two confronted one another in their closing comments in the first Dachau trial, echoes of Daniel Webster, Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill rang through my head—each man speaking out passionately from the depth of conviction about important truths. Scenes like that can’t be invented.
Created by The Authors Guild
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