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December 5, 2010

German war crimes in WWII: shooting Soviet POWs for target practice

One of the stories told by the tour guides at the Dachau Memorial Site is that Soviet Prisoners of War were used for target practice at a rifle range located outside the camp. The Dachau Museum gives visitors the information that 6,000 Soviet POWs were shot at the Herbertshausen rifle range.

Soviet POWs were imprisoned in many different camps in the concentration camp system, but Dachau was apparently the only camp where they were used by SS soldiers for target practice.  I previously blogged about the unique method of executing Soviet POWs at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen here.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, thousands of captured Soviet soldiers were brought to Dachau, starting in October 1941.

The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army, published after the Dachau camp was liberated, included the following statistics for the Dachau main camp:

Poles: 9,200; Russians: 3,900; French: 3,700; Yugoslavs: 3,200; Jews: 2,100; Czechoslovaks: 1,500; Germans: 1,000. There was also a combined total of 1,000 Belgians, Hungarians, Italians, Austrians, Greeks, etc.

There were 90 Russian officers, who had been determined to be Communist Commissars, that were executed at Dachau, on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. The hanging of the 90 Commissars at Dachau was a violation of the Geneva Convention of 1929 which set rules for the treatment of enemy POWs. Germany had signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, but the Soviet Union had not.

But how does anyone know for certain that Soviet POWs were shot for target practice at Dachau? Did the SS set up a bleacher section for potential witnesses to watch?  Was the shooting of Soviet POWs proved at the Nuremberg IMT or at one of the many proceedings of the American Military Tribunal?  No, of course not!

Wikipedia cites page 137 of a book by Edkins, published in 2003, as the source of the Soviet POW target practice story.

In her book, entitled Trauma and the Memory of Politics,  Jenny Edkins wrote this on page 137:

In addition, mass shootings of Soviet prisoners of war took place at firing ranges near to the camp in 1941 and 1942.

Edkins did not give her source for the statement quoted above.

The stories about the concentration camps in Germany were told to the American liberators by the prisoners, who later became paid witnesses at the American Military Tribunal proceedings, which were held at Dachau.

At the American Military Tribunal proceedings, which started in November 1945, even before the Nuremberg IMT began, 40 SS staff members of the Dachau camp were charged with “participating in a common plan to violate the Laws and Usages of War,” which included the charge of shooting thousands of Soviet POWs at the SS shooting range at Herbertshausen.  Under the “common plan” theory of co-responsibility, which was an ex post facto law made up by the Allies, all staff members of the Dachau concentration camp were guilty of the crime of shooting Soviet POWs for target practice.

The Herbertshausen shooting range, which is shown in the photo below, is located in the Dachau suburb of Etzenhausen.

SS Rifle range  Photo taken by Donald E. Jackson, 40th Combat Engineer Regiment

The American defense attorneys for the Dachau staff members claimed that there was no proof that Russian POWs had been shot for target practice at Herbertshausen, as alleged by the prosecution.

The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, and was not following the rules of the Convention with regard to German POWs, but that didn’t matter because the American Military Tribunal had made up new rules, just like the new rules made up for the German war criminals by the Nuremberg IMT.

According to the new rules of the AMT, the Germans were responsible for following the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929 with regard to the Soviet POWs, even though the Soviet Union was not a party to the Convention.  The killing of German POWs by the Soviet Union was not considered to be a war crime.  Only the losers in a war are war criminals, according to the new rules made up by the Allies after World War II.

During the American Military Tribunal proceedings against former Dachau Commandant Martin Weiss and 39 others, who were staff members of the Dachau concentration camp, the American military prosecutors also charged that several of the accused were guilty of “a common plan to violate the Laws and Usages of War” because they were present when 90 Communist Commissars were executed at Dachau and did not try to stop the execution.  Following orders was not considered to be a legal defense in the war crimes trials of World War II, although that has changed now.

After World War II, all of the German war criminals were tried under the new “common plan” concept which was an ex post facto law made up by the Allies, specifically for the Germans.  Another innovative idea, which was used by the American prosecutors in the war crimes proceedings at Dachau, was that any findings and sentences in the first trial would become matters of judicial notice at subsequent subsidiary trials. In other words, any crimes that had been proved in a prior trial did not have to be proved again, but could be used as proof of guilt against future defendants.

Major Boysen was an American defense attorney for Alex Piorkowski, a former Dachau Commandant, who was charged with war crimes in a subsidiary case of the Dachau trials.  The prosecution’s case against Piorkowski was based on the testimony of 34 paid witnesses who were former prisoners at Dachau.

As the defense attorney for Piorkowski, Major Boysen pointed out that the prosecution’s allegation, that 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet POWs had been executed at Dachau in the spring of 1942, while Piorkowski was the Commandant, had not been proved in the main trial of Dachau camp personnel, yet it was put into evidence in the Piorkowski trial, along with other atrocities that had become matters of judicial notice and did not have to be proved again.

According to Joseph Halow, the court reporter who wrote the book Innocent at Dachau, Major Boysen concluded that he was of the “definite opinion that no such massacre occurred at Dachau as is factually stated to have taken place there in Prosecution Exhibit 1.”

After the first proceedings, against former Commandant Martin Weiss and 39 staff members at the Dachau camp, had been concluded, Major Boysen had learned that the Dachau railroad station commander, a man named Rohrmuehler, had witnessed the arrival of the trains bringing Soviet Prisoners of War to Dachau.

Rohrmuehler claimed that no more than 500 Russians had ever passed through the Dachau camp, and that the claim that 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet POWs had been massacred at Dachau was absurd. The testimony at the Dachau proceedings, concerning the killing of Soviet POWs, was in the form of affidavits and the witnesses had not been subjected to cross-examination in the courtroom, according to Court Reporter Joseph Halow.

The claim, by the Dachau railroad station man, does not make sense, since there were 3,900 Russians still in the Dachau camp when it was liberated, according to the Official Army Report.  If 6,000 Russians had been used for target practice, as alleged by the prosecution, that would mean that at least 9,900 Russians had been brought to Dachau.

In spite of the fact that the shooting of Soviet POWs was never proved by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau, this story is still being told to tourists every day at the Dachau Memorial Site, along with the story that the shower room at Dachau is a gas chamber that was used to kill a few prisoners at Dachau, although not for mass gassing.

Dachau is not the only place where tourists are told that the SS shot prisoners for target practice.  When I visited the Little Fortress, across the road from the Theresienstadt ghetto, I was told that prisoners who had been condemned to death were used for target practice.

Firing range at the Little Fortress at Theresienstadt

The photograph above shows the place where prisoners were executed in the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt. One of the fortification walls is in the background and the spot where the condemned prisoner stood is in the center of the picture. The concrete form in the foreground was one of three places, under a free-standing roof, from which the firing squad would shoot while in a prone position.

According to a small booklet which I purchased at the Museum, between 250 and 300 of the 32,000 prisoners, who were inmates at the Small Fortress, were executed. The first recorded execution was on May 11, 1943 when a leader of the Communist resistance, Frantisek Prokop, was shot at the firing range.

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