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November 21, 2011

German war criminals convicted by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau

Friedrich Weitzel, wearing #40 on his back, is sentenced to death by the American Military Tribunal

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.

Friedrich Weitzel is identified in court by Helmuth Breiding

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 had 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 is identified by Michael Pellis in Dachau courtroom of American Military Tribunal

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.

Emil Mahl is identified by Rudolf Wolf in Dachau courtroom

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.”

Eugen Seybold, a crematorium worker at Dachau, points a finger at SS doctor Dr. Fritz Hintermayer

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.

Fritz Becher is shown in the courtroom at Dachau

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.

19 Comments »

  1. I have noted that Soviet Military court tried 16 Nazis members of Sachsenhausen concentration camp at Berlin trials on 23 Oct 1947 to 31 Oct 1947 and foundevery one guilty. They were sentenced to life term excepttow who were given 15 yeras prison term. At that time death penalty was abolished in Soviet union.which was reintroduced in 1950. For similar crimes or even lesser crimes, the other members of allies in their trials sentenced most of the convicts to death and were hanged at Landesberg, Hamelin, Krakow and other prisons while some were hanged publicly. The pointof contention is whether this point of abolished death sentence by Soviets was discussed by allied commanders or Heras of states of such countries together in a meeting. There were pre trial meetings by the allies to formulate the methodology for trials. They also introduced commoin design by Nazis that was used to punish the convicts even if much evidence was not available. This was clear in Dachau trials in the case of Us vs Altfuldisch. It was a destiny purely that many Nazis were captured by UK , USA, France, Poland apart from soviets. Thus there was no fair justice by the victors after the war. Why this point of abolished death sentence in USSR was not discussed? Although the defendants who were convicted in Berlin trials were released in 1956 except Paul who was a non ss member and a Kapo. Ex commnadant anton Kaindl andfive more collegues died by spring 1948 while serving sentence in coal mines.
    The released men went to West Germany and were again tried for crimes against German nationals and werelenient towards them .

    Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao — October 21, 2016 @ 7:29 am

    • I wrote about the Sachsenhausen trials on my website at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Sachsenhausen/Trials.html

      Comment by furtherglory — October 21, 2016 @ 7:57 am

      • who were the defendants of Sachsenhausen trials who died while undergoing hard labor in Soviet coal mines on Polar sea after conviction and sentencing to life. It is learnt that another 5 defendants died apart from Anton Kaindl the former commandant of the said camp

        Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao Retired — October 29, 2016 @ 9:25 am

        • You wrote: “who were the defendants of Sachsenhausen trials who died while undergoing hard labor in Soviet coal mines on Polar sea after conviction and sentencing to life.”

          I wrote about this on this page of my website: http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Sachsenhausen/Trials.html

          https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/camps-for-german-war-criminals-set-up-the-allies-after-wwii/

          Comment by furtherglory — October 29, 2016 @ 10:07 am

          • Dear sir,
            You wrote in the said blog……:Paul Sakowski, who was not a member of the SS, stayed in East Germany where he served the remainder of his sentence which had been reduced to 15-years, in the Brandenburg Penitentiary, finally being released in 1972.

            .In two of the most important German trials, Gustav Sorge, the record keeper, and Wilhelm Schubert, a block leader who was in charge of one of the barracks at Sachsenhausen, were put on trial on October 18, 1958 in a regional court at Bonn, a city in West Germany. On February 6, 1959, both were found guilty of murder, attempted murder, and complicity of murder and manslaughter.

            August Höhn, Horst Hempel, Dr. Heinz Baumkötter and Kurt Eccarius were also put on trial again in West German courts and all were convicted again. Their sentences were reduced because of time already served, and some of the men were not sent to prison at all because, after their ordeal in the Soviet prison camp, they were not considered to be fit to withstand imprisonment again.

            Thus as per your post these six were living after release.. I could establish that Martin Knittler committed suicide in west Germany in a prison before he was tried by a German court after his return to West Germany. Thus the total defendants still alive at that time come to 8. . .Ex commandant August klindl died at coal mines in 1948 as per your post. Hence seven men are left that include five dead and three living still at that point of time. These are Ludwig rehn, Fresmann, Zander, Bremmscheidt, Michael korner. Fritz ficker. Menne saathoff. Out of these seven who were dead at coal mines while serving sentence? Who were the three living who also went to West Germany.

            This may be kindly clarified

            Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao Retired — October 30, 2016 @ 6:34 am

      • Its OK and fine…..Loose threads to be connected.

        Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao Retired — December 6, 2016 @ 2:04 am

  2. One of the flaw at Nuremberg trial was the execution of General Jodl. Later he was not found guilty. TheGovtreturned all confiscated proprty to his widow. That was really bad. Every order ofexecution should be thoroughly investigated. Life can be taken but can not be given. Americans faultered greatly. They are no saints.One must remember that none of the captured Germas and interned at eisenhower camps returned home as pera report. What happened to them is any ones guess.

    Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao — August 10, 2016 @ 10:36 am

    • You wrote: “One must remember that none of the captured Germas and interned at eisenhower camps returned home as pera report. What happened to them is any ones guess.”

      A few years ago, I met a German man who said that he was one of the prisoners in Eisenhower’s camp. He said that a kind American soldier allowed him to escape because he was so young. Years later, he came to America and is now an American citizen. I wrote about Eisenhower’s camp at

      https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/eisenhowers-death-camps-a-stain-on-american-history/

      Comment by furtherglory — August 10, 2016 @ 11:15 am

  3. In fact Americans hanged Nazis summarily.. The trial was a mere show. The common design factor already sealed the fate of the convicts. Innocence was not accepted. The staff members of dachau were executed after listening to some witnesses who might have lied too.

    Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao. Retired — June 17, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    • You wrote: “The [Dachau] trial was a mere show.”

      You are absolutely correct. I wrote about the Dachau trial at https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/91-year-old-wwii-veteran-breaks-his-silence-about-the-dachau-massacre/

      Comment by furtherglory — June 17, 2016 @ 8:32 am

      • Furtherglory.. I feel personally that the British court that assembled at Belsen trial was much lenient in sentencing the defendants compared to Americans at Dachau. At Mauthausen trials, US court out of 61 defendants in the case of Us vs Altfuldisch sentenced 58 to death initially. No one was spared . However few were given lifer. Subsequently very few got remission in the form of life term. But many escaped with few years jail in Belsen trials. If US had tried at Belsen almost all would have been hanged. Justice meted out after WW II was not uniform by allies. It is agreed that Nazis were cruel and killed lakhs of innocents in the Holocaust for which clear evidence exists.If the factor of common design.. the American type of Justice was universally applied every SS member should have been deprived of his life summarily without trial either by firing squad or hanging. Usually hanging is meant for criminals and firing squad is practiced in case of victims who committed crimes in uniform.In a country like India, till date there has not been a single case of use of firing squad even for terrorists nabbed and found guilty..

        Comment by Colonel Dr K Prabhakar Rao.. retired — August 21, 2016 @ 10:19 am

  4. Bernays was a big fish like that big Bass named “Houdini” in the old pop song by character actor Walter Brennan. The curious should start querying the “experts” about him. One place to begin might be The Raphael Lemkin Institute for the Prevention of Genocide since he used Lemkin’s book Axis Rule In Occupied Europe to come up with the “common design” charge.

    The concept of the “common design” charge was the innovative idea of Lt. Col. Murray C. Bernays, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated to the United States at the age of 6. The following words, written by Bernays before the end of the war, while the war crimes trials were still in the planning stage, are quoted by Robert E. Conot in his book “Judgment at Nuremberg”:

    “The crimes and atrocities were not single or unconnected, but were the inevitable outcome of the basic criminal conspiracy of the Nazi party. This conspiracy, based on the Nazi doctrine of racism and totalitarianism, involved murder, terrorism, and the destruction of peaceful populations in violation of the laws of war. A conspiracy is criminal either because it aims at the accomplishment of lawful ends by unlawful means, or because it aims at the accomplishment of unlawful ends by lawful means. Therefore, such technicalities as the question whether the extermination of fellow Germans by Nazis perpetrated before there was a state of war, would be unimportant, if you recognize as the basic crime the Nazi conspiracy which required for success the killing of dissident liberal Germans and the extermination of German (and non-German) Jews before and after the war had begun.”

    Bernays was of the opinion that the German people should be made to feel a sense of their guilt and a realization of their responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis. The German people should come to understand the barbarism that they had supported and to realize the criminal nature of the Nazi regime. Bernays thought that it was necessary to prove the conspiracy of the Nazi leadership in the war crimes that were committed so that all the Nazi criminals, large and small, would be caught in the same web.

    A key member of Jackson’s London staff was Colonel Murray C. Bernays, who was one of the first people who had been involved in war crimes problems. Graduated from Harvard in 1915, he established a law practice in New York. He was given a commission in the Army in 1942, and in October 1943, he was made chief of the Special Projects Branch, Personnel Division, Army General Staff. His major project in this position was the preparation ofplans for trials of German “war criminals.” After each stage of negotiations with the White House and others, he made the appropriate revisions in the plans being considered, although he was the author of the plan that was eventually settled on, if one is to credit his account. In any case, shortly after the appointment of Jackson, Bernays was awarded the Legion of Merit, the citation reading in part:

    “Early recognizing the need for a sound basis in dealing with the problem of war criminals and war crimes, he formulated the basic concept of such a policy and initiated timely and appropriate action which assured its adoption as the foundation of national policy.”

    Bernays returned to the U.S. in November 1945 and immediately resigned from the Army. Because, as we have seen, there was considerable dialogue at higher levels relating to plans for war crimes trials, it is doubtful that one can take Bernays’s claims at full value, but he no doubt had a great deal to do with the drafting of the plans for the trials. Moreover, he had certainly been an appropriate choice for something as novel as the formulation of the “legal” structure for the war crimes trials, since his views of justice were equally novel. After his return to the U.S., he had a chat with some editors (who characterized him as “the man behind the gavel”), and in answer to their queries as to “how the small fry are going to be hooked,” he replied:

    “There are a good many Nazi criminals who will get off if the roundups aren’t conducted efficiently. But if we establish that the SS, for example, was a criminal organization, and that membership in it is evidence per se of criminality, the Allies are going to get hold of a great many more criminals in one swoop. You know, a lot of people here at home don’t realize that we are now the government of Germany in our zone and that no judicial system can exist other than one we approve. We are the law. If we wanted to, for instance, we could try Germans for crimes twenty, thirty, forty years old. We’ll be too busy with the current crop of war criminals, though, to have much time to look into ancient wrongdoings.”

    Comment by who+dares+wings — November 27, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  5. Very interesting blog. Thank you all for posting

    Comment by david499Merlin — November 23, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

  6. This Question had been on my mind a while …..IT would be very very intriguing to find out further information regarding this devious Lt col Murray C.Bernays ,methinks a little endeavor is in order , any seconds here ???

    Comment by Robert schmidt — November 21, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

  7. The “crimes against humanity,” “crimes against peace” and other Nazi collective guilt gambits were the brainchild of Lt. Col. Murray C. Bernays, the ex brother-in-law of Edward Bernays who was Freud’s nephew and Madison Avenue’s “Father of Spin.” I find it curious that there is no post-WWII biographical, career, marriage, or other information about Murray C. Bernays on the Internet. What happened to this “legal eagle” after he enabled so many hangings?! Lt. Col. William Denson must have been tasked by someone higher up pass so many death sentences. You can track him after Dachau, but Bernays either died, changed his name again (Murray Cohen took his wife’s name), or made alyiah to Israel with Zionist US Col. David “Mikey” Marcus (also at Nuremburg) because he doesn’t seem exist after l947.

    Comment by who+dares+wings — November 21, 2011 @ 11:51 am

    • By George, you’re right. I looked up Lt. Col. Murray C. Bernays and there is no Wikipedia page about him. I don’t know what happened to him, but it gets curiouser and curiouser.

      Comment by furtherglory — November 21, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  8. Out of interest is there a record of the order given by hitler to order the death of the communists by firing squad ?
    I would like to see how the chain of command worked .
    seing as though not one document exists for execution of one jew let alone millions

    Comment by Robert schmidt — November 21, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    • Yes, there was a written order by Hitler to execute all Communist Commisssars in the Soviet Army. This quote is from Wikipedia:

      “The Commissar Order (German: Kommissarbefehl) was a written order given by Adolf Hitler on 6 June 1941, prior to Operation Barbarossa. Its official name was Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars (Richtlinien für die Behandlung politischer Kommissare). It demanded that any Soviet political commissar identified among captured troops be shot immediately as an enforcer of the Communist ideology and the Soviet Communist Party line in military forces.”

      If there was a written order by Hitler to kill all the Jews, it has never been found.

      Comment by furtherglory — November 21, 2011 @ 3:10 pm


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