Dachau Trials

The U.S. occupational authorities in postwar Germany conducted a series of trials against members of the German armed forces and of SS and Waffen SS. These were mainly about alleged crimes committed against inmates in the various concentration camps which had been liberated by the Americans, such as Dachau, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen, Nordhausen and Buchenwald, as well as alleged war crimes against downed Allied pilots and U.S. soldiers fallen into German captivity.

These trials stretched from August 1945 until December 1947, prosecuted 1,672 German defendants in 489 separate proceedings, and ended with almost three quarters of the defendants getting convicted; 297 death penalties and 279 life sentences were handed down. The investigations and hearings of these trials were conducted at the compounds of the former Dachau Concentration Camp. A few other, similar trials were held at Ludwigsburg (Württemberg), Darmstadt (Hesse) and Salzburg (Austria).

All highly questionable features that defined the International Military Tribunal (IMT) also applied to these trials, which were held under the same rules. (See the entry on the IMT for more details.) However, the framework of the Dachau Trials was much worse, due to the following features:

  • The burden of proof was on the defense, meaning that a defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent.
  • Any official of any Third Reich military or civilian authority was subject to “Automatic Arrest,” meaning that he or she could be arrested and kept detained indefinitely without any court order or any recourse. Often, the only way out for a person in that situation was cooperation with the detaining authorities, often consisting of signing false affidavits meant to incriminate someone else.
  • Charges against people in automatic arrest were cooked up by the prosecuting authorities using so-called “stage shows” or “reviews”: The prosecuting authorities assembled former concentration-camp inmates and placed them in an auditorium of a theater or cinema. The persons in automatic arrest were placed on an illuminated stage, while the former concentration-camp inmates sat in a dark room and were allowed to make any kind of wild accusation. If – contrary to expectations – no accusations were made, or if the accusations weren’t damaging enough, the prosecution “lent a helping hand,” persuading the inmates to make accusations, often accompanied by the grossest intimidation and threats. This mockery of justice ended only when an American officer donned an SS uniform and appeared on the stage before the howling witnesses, who promptly incriminated him as a concentration-camp thug.
  • “Second-degree” interrogation: interrogations lasting many hours or even days with little or no food, water, or any breaks; false incriminating statements of others; outright lies about existing incriminating evidence; threats of torture or extradition to the Soviet Union. These were the methods to obtain confessions or incriminating statements against others.
  • From the records and transcripts of these interrogations, the prosecutors stitched together “affidavits,” in which the exonerating passages were deleted, and the content was often distorted by rewording.
  • Unsigned affidavits and “copies” of documents, as well as statements from hearsay were admitted as proof.
  • Until the beginning of the trial, defendants lacked legal counsel.
  • The court-appointed attorneys were often Allied citizens with poor, if any, command of the German language, and little interest in defending the defendants, sometimes even acting like prosecutors, threatening the defendants and advising them to make false confessions.
  • Defense attorneys often received only partial and reluctant access to the files; conversations with defendants were only permitted shortly before commencement of the trial, sometimes even only during the trial, and only in the presence of the Allied prosecution personnel.
  • Before the trial, the defense was often only informed of the main points of the indictment in terms of generalities.
  • Motions to interrogate witnesses or to raise objections to evidence introduced by the prosecution – such as extorted statements – were usually rejected.

But worst of all were the interrogations of the “third degree.” Here is what an extraordinary commission of the U.S. Congress, headed by Edward L. van Roden, former U.S. Chief of Military (Europe), and Gordon Simpson, justice at the Texas Supreme Court, had to say about this, among other things:

“Our investigators would put a black hood over the accused’s head and then punch him in the face with brass knuckles, kick him, and beat him with rubber hose. Many of the German defendants had teeth knocked out. Some had their jaws broken. All but two of the Germans, in the 139 cases we investigated, had been kicked in the testicles beyond repair. This was Standard Operating Procedure with American investi­ga­tors.”

“Evidence” gathered and verdicts rendered during these trials were then considered judicial “truths” that could not be challenged by the defense in other tribunals, such as the IMT and the subsequent Nuremberg Military Tribunals.

(For more details on this, see the entry on the IMT, on torture, on show trials, as well as Rudolf 2019, pp. 88-92; 2023, pp. 406-411.)

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