Most people know about the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal where the most important German war criminals were put on trial by the Allies in November 1945, but less well known are the trials conducted by the American Military Tribunal where German war criminals were prosecuted in a courtroom at the former Dachau concentration camp. The photo above shows Friedrich Weitzel, a member of the staff at the Dachau camp, as he hears his death sentence pronounced by an American Military judge.
What heinous crimes had Friedrich Weitzel committed against the innocent prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp? Weitzel had not personally committed any crimes at all; he was prosecuted under the ex-post-facto law called “common design” which made it a crime for anyone to have any connection whatsoever to a Nazi concentration camp. (Concentration camps had been declared to be a criminal enterprise by the Allies after World War II ended.)
Weitzel was the supply clerk for the Dachau camp. The following quote is from the book entitled Witness to Barbarism, written by a member of the prosecution staff at Dachau:
[The American prosecutor] Denson has drawn the indictment alleging violations of the Rules of Land Warfare – namely, the killings, beatings, torture, starvation, and other abuses from January 1, 1942, to April 29, 1945, when the Americans liberated Dachau. [Denson] says the worst offense was the starvation of prisoners through embezzlement. The administration of each camp received a check by mail from the Himmler headquarters in Berlin, the amount depending on the number of prisoners. But they bought as little food as possible for prisoners, pocketing the remainder of the funds.
If Weitzel had personally embezzled the funds given to him to buy food for the Dachau prisoners, he would have been prosecuted by the Nazis themelves. Karl Otto Koch, the Commandant of Buchenwald, was accused by the SS of embezzling money from funds given to him for the Buchenwald camp; Koch was executed by the SS after a trial conducted by SS judge Konrad Morgen. Amon Goeth, the Commandant of the Plaszow camp in the Schindler’s List story, was awaiting trial by the SS when World War II ended; he had been accused by Morgen of stealing from the warehouses at the Plaszow camp.
The Dachau camp was also investigated by Morgen, but there were no accusations of embezzlement of funds for food at Dachau. None of this mattered to the Americans who prosecuted staff members of Dachau. Under the “common design” ex-post-facto law, every German was guilty of something, regardless of what he had personally done.
In the same photograph above, which was taken on November 22, 1945, the man on the far left, wearing #29 on his chest, is Sylvester Filleböck. One prosecution witness testified that Filleböck was present in September 1944 when 90 Communist Commissars in the Soviet Army were executed at Dachau on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Filleböck denied being present at the execution and six other witnesses corroborated his story, but nevertheless, he was sentenced to death by hanging. He was guilty of a violation of the Laws and Usages of War because he was allegedly present during the executions and had not acted to intervene.
All German soldiers in both the SS and the Wehrmacht were required to swear an oath to Adolf Hitler. By not intervening in the executions ordered by Hitler, Filleböck had prolonged his own life by a few years, since he would undoubtedly have been shot on the spot if he had tried to stop an order from being carried out. The prosecution contended that he would have merely been transferred to another job.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Lt. Col. Douglas Bates gave the following argument with regard to the “superior orders” defense:
There has been a lot of impressive law read by the chief counsel, and it is good law – Miller, Wharton. The sad thing is that little of it is applicable law. Perhaps we have not been diligent enough in seeking applicable law. Some think the prosecution has found applicable law in the Rules of Land Warfare on the doctrine of superior orders. We have no intention of arguing that executions by the German Reich were due process. Nevertheless, we contend that executions were the result of law of the then recognized regime in Germany and that members of the firing squad were simple soldiers acting in the same capacity as in any military organization in the world.
Most of the German war criminals were defended by American military lawyers. In the closing argument presented by the defense in the trial of Weitzel, on December 12, 1945, Lt. Col. Douglas Bates argued against the concept of “common design.”
Bates said the following, with regard to Friedrich Wetzel, as quoted from the trial transcript:
And a new definition of murder has been introduced along with common design. This new principle of law says “I am given food and told to feed these people. The food is inadequate. I feed them with it, and they die of starvation. I am guilty of murder.” Germany was fighting a war she had lost six months before. All internal business had completely broken down. I presume people like Filleboeck and Wetzel should have reenacted the miracle of Galilee, where five loaves and fishes fed a multitude.”
Another German war criminal who tried to use the “obeying superior orders defense” was Leonard Eichberger; he was a soldier who was ordered to Dachau after he was wounded at the front and had lost a leg. His defense lawyer, Capt. Niles, argued before the court that Eichberger had not had a choice when he was assigned to Dachau and that he should not be held responsible for the legality of the orders that he had to carry out in the camp.
In the photograph below, prosecution witness Michael Pellis identifies SS Hauptscharfürher Franz Böttger in the courtroom at Dachau during the American Military Tribunal proceedings in the case of US vs. Martin Gottfried Weiss, et al. The man wearing a card with the number 34 is Walter Adolf Langleist.
Franz Böttger was born in 1888 and was 57 years old at the time of his trial. Between May 1941 and May 1945, he had served as a Rapportführer (Roll call leader) in the Dachau camp. One of his duties was to escort condemned prisoners to the crematorium where they were shot or hanged.
At the Dachau trial, Böttger was charged with kicking the chair out from under a Russian Communist Commissar when he was hanged. He was also charged with shooting a Russian POW who collapsed on an evacuation death march out of the Dachau camp on April 27, 1945.
The following quote is from the book entitled Dachau Liberated The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army, edited by Michael W. Perry:
Bottger, Franz – SS Hauptsharfuhrer
Rapportfuhrer in the camp, subject is an outstanding example of inhuman cruelty and brutality. He participated in the killing of many political prisoners as well as the killing of many prisoners of war. On 27 April 1945, he left Dachau with an evacuation transport. Over 1200 people were killed on the way. Subject was recognized and apprehended by informants working for this detachment about 30 kilometers distance from Dachau.
Although Böttger had been accused of killing many prisoners by the Americans who wrote the Official Report, he was only charged with killing two people during his trial by the American Military Tribunal.
Another Dachau staff member who was put on trial by the American Military Tribunal was Franz Trenkle, who was one of the executioners at Dachau. (Trenkle wore card number 4 around his neck during the trial.) Under interrogation by Lt. Paul Guth before the trial began, Trenkle had confessed to shooting prisoners that had been convicted of sabotage and looting and had been brought to Dachau for execution.
Trenkle’s defense was that he was obeying superior orders. The order had been given by der Führer, Adolf Hitler, and passed down to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the SD, who then passed the order down to SS Lt. Gen. Richard Glücks who gave the order to Gauleiter Paul Giessler who ordered the shooting. Trenkle claimed that he could only obey commands and was powerless to stop the executions.
The defense of obeying superior orders was not valid in the cases tried by the American Military Tribunal. Franz Trenkle was convicted and hanged on May 28, 1946; he had extended his life by a few years when he obeyed superior orders.
The photo above shows Emil Mahl, wearing number 33, as he is identified in the courtroom at Dachau by Rudolf Wolf, a former prisoner in the Dachau camp. Seated on the far right is Albin Gretsch, number 31.
Emil Mahl was specifically charged with assisting in the execution of a young Russian Prisoner of War who was one of the 90 Communist Commissars hanged at Dachau. Adolf Hitler had ordered that all captured Communist Commissars should be brought to the nearest concentration camp and executed. Mahl had committed a war crime when he put the rope around the neck of the Russian POW before his execution.
Emil Erwin Mahl was defended by Hans Karl von Posern, a German attorney, who had been a prisoner at Mauthausen. His defense was that Mahl was only obeying orders: “Befehl ist Befehl – an order is an order.”
Pointing to Emil Mahl behind him, von Posern said, “Here is defendant Mahl, who was told he had to take part of an execution. He gets led up to the execution place and receives the order to place the rope on the neck of a man who shall get hanged. If he had not obeyed the order, his own execution would have taken place.”
The photograph above shows Dr. Fritz Hintermayer, on the left, wearing a card with the number 10 around his neck. Eugen Seybold, a former prisoner in the camp, points to him as he identifies Dr. Hintermayer as one of the SS doctors at Dachau. Dr. Hintermayer was one of the accused who claimed that he was coerced into signing a confession by Lt. Guth.
Eugen Seybold was one of the Kapos at Dachau; he was one of the workers in the crematorium whose job it was to put the dead bodies into the cremation ovens. Eugen Seybold could potentially have been among the accused himself if he had not agreed to testify for the prosecution as a paid witness, as one of the defense attorneys pointed out during the trial.
The photo above shows Fritz Becher in the courtroom at Dachau, just after he rose from his chair to take the witness stand. Becher was accused of beating a priest to death at Dachau. American prosecutor Lt. Col. William Denson conceded that Becher might have been falsely accused by one of the witnesses: “It may be pointed out by defense counsel that some testified falsely, that on a certain date they saw Becher beat a priest so brutally that he died, and Becher states he was not at that place at that particular time. And the witness may indeed be in error in that respect.”
In the end, it didn’t matter that the prosecution had not proved that Becher had beaten a priest to death. He was nevertheless sentenced to death by hanging; Becher was executed on May 29, 1946.
The prosecution called more than 100 witnesses to the stand in the first Dachau trail; at the end of his presentation, Lt. Col. Denson called several of the Jewish interrogators to the stand. All of them denied using any force or coercion to obtain confessions from the accused. Supposedly, the accused had voluntarily signed confessions admitting to the most ignominious atrocities, such as making human shrunken heads or fashioning handbags out of human skin, with the knowledge that they would surely receive a death sentence for such crimes.