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December 6, 2011

War crimes committed by Hermann Pister — the last Commandant of Buchenwald

Yesterday, I blogged about Irving Roth, a survivor of Buchenwald, and Rick Carrier, one of the liberators of Buchenwald.  The Huffington Post did an article about this same story, and mentioned that “Hermann Pister, the commandant of Buchenwald, was hanged for his crimes in 1948.”

Actually, Hermann Pister was not hanged; he died before the death sentence for his crimes at Buchenwald could be carried out.

Hermann Pister, the last commandant of Buchewald, was born in 1896

You don’t hear much about Hermann Pister. Karl Otto Koch, the husband of the infamous Ilse Koch, is much better known. Koch was executed after he was tried by the Nazis and found guilty of ordering the death of two Buchenwald prisoners. The alleged crimes of Hermann Pister were ignored by Dr. Konrad Georg Morgen, the Nazi judge who tried and convicted Karl Otto Koch.

In the trial of the Buchenwald war criminals, there were 30 men and one women (Ilse Koch) in the dock, whereas there were 40 war criminals in the Dachau trial and 61 in the Mauthausen trial.  Why so few war criminals in the Buchenwald camp?

One possible reason is because the Buchenwald camp was actually run by the Communist prisoners, who secretly stored weapons inside the camp, and took over the camp as soon as American troops arrived in the vicinity. The SS staff members fled the scene, but the prisoners chased them down, brought them back to the camp and beat them to death, with the American liberators joining in.

The trial of Hermann Pister began on April 11, 1947, two years to the day after the Buchenwald camp was liberated.  The trial was conducted by the American Military Tribunal in a courtroom at the former Dachau concentration camp.

So exactly what were the crimes of Commandant Hermann Pister?

The charge against Hermann Pister was that he had participated in a “common plan” to violate the Laws and Usages of war against the Hague Convention of 1907 and the third Geneva Convention, written in 1929, which pertained to the rights of Prisoners of War. 

The “common plan” charge was a new concept of co-responsibility, which had been made up by the Allies after World War II ended. 

Under the “common plan” concept, anyone who had anything whatsoever to do with a concentration camp was a war criminal and there was no defense against this charge. 

During the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal against the Buchenwald war criminals, American prosecutor Lt. Col. William Denson confronted Pister on the witness stand with his crime of violating The Hague Convention:

“You knew that according to The Hague Convention, an occupying power must respect the rights and lives and religious convictions of persons living in the occupied zone, did you not?”

To this question, Commandant Pister replied:

“First of all, I did not know The Hague Convention. Furthermore, I did not bring these people to Buchenwald.”

The basis, for charging the staff members of the Nazi concentration camps for violating the Geneva Convention of 1929, was that the illegal combatants who were prisoners in the concentration camps were detainees who should have been given the same rights as Prisoners of War because, in the eyes of the victorious Allies, they were the equivalent of POWs. The Geneva Convention of 1949 now gives all detainees the same rights as POWs, but the 1929 Geneva Convention did not.

Many of the prisoners at Buchenwald were Resistance fighters from the German-occupied countries in Europe who were fighting as illegal combatants in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1929.

Besides the Resistance fighters, who were illegal combatants under the rules of the 1929 Geneva Convention, there were also Soviet POWs in the Buchenwald camp . The American prosecutors of the American Military Tribunal declared that the Soviet POWs should have been treated according to the 1929 Geneva Convention even though the Soviets had not signed the convention and were not following it.  Soviet POWs who were Communist Commissars had been executed at Buchenwald on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

Before he took the stand to testify on his own behalf, Pister’s defense attorney, Dr. Richard Wacker, told the court:

“The defense will prove that the accused Pister was responsible neither for the existence of Buchenwald nor the orders he received there, and is therefore not guilty. The defense will give the accused Pister an opportunity to express his point of view and show for what reasons he did not look upon those orders as criminal, but carried them out, believing in good faith in their legality.”

The defense that the accused was acting under “superior orders” was not allowed in the American Military Tribunals. Hermann Pister was a war criminal because he had not stopped executions that had been ordered by Adolf Hitler himself.   

In his testimony, as quoted by Joshua M. Greene in his book Justice at Dachau, Pister painted a rosy picture of life at Buchenwald when he took over as Commandant in 1942:

“I was surprised by the good installations in the camp. There was a bed for every prisoner, covered with a sheet and two woolen blankets. The capacity was, under normal circumstances, about fifteen thousand. At that time there were eight thousand. Each house consisted of two bedrooms, two dormitories, two dayrooms, and toilets. There was a huge sewer system, an excellent steam kitchen which could prepare food for ten thousand at a time, a cold storage room underneath the kitchen in which five million pounds of potatoes could be stored, a modern laundry, electrical pressing equipment, and a large clothing warehouse where the prisoners’ clothing and valuables were hung up in a sack with a number on it. The prisoner hospital had two large operating rooms, a TB station, X-ray stations and heated bath. There was a barber in each block and cleanliness was excellent. Seeing such facilities, I believed I could create the same results as I had achieved on a smaller scale at the labor education camp.”

Pister emphasized in his testimony that he had not mistreated the prisoners; his testimony is quoted below:

“I immediately issued an order that mistreatment would be punished most severely. I referred to an order issued personally by the Führer (Adolf Hitler) that read “I am the one who decides about the life or death of a prisoner or also my representative appointed by myself.” Of course, I couldn’t do away with all mistreatments overnight, but witnesses can testify that any mistreatment of which I heard was punished by me immediately.”

Lt. Col. Denson, the lead prosecutor at the Buchenwald proceedings, confronted Commandant Hermann Pister with orders that he had signed to transport prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi extermination camp in what is now Poland.

On cross-examination, Denson asked, “You were acquainted with extermination camps, is that not correct?”

Pister’s amazing answer was “No. I didn’t even know there were extermination camps.”

Denson asked, “You never hear of prisoners whom you sent to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen tending gardens, did you?”

Actually, there was an experimental farm at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where prisoners worked, but Denson apparently didn’t know this.

Pister denied that Auschwitz was an extermination camp, saying:

“If prisoners were sent there only for extermination, then who would work in the rubber factories and other industries near Auschwitz? Right now in Nürnberg, the I.G. Farben Industry is being charged with having used hundreds of thousands of prisoners for labor in the vicinity of Auschwitz….”

Denson cut him off with new questions:

“That does not account for the two and one-half million who were sent there, does it?”

[Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, had confessed that two and a half million prisoners had been gassed at Auschwitz.]

“A good percentage came from Buchenwald, did they not? How many did you send to Auschwitz?”

Pister answered:

“I can’t even give you an approximate figure. Thousands of transports left Buchenwald. But the fact is that, from this one transport that was discussed so much here, six men have sat on this witness chair – Jews all of them – and every single one testified under oath that he was sent to Auschwitz for extermination.”

The transport, to which Pister was referring, was a trainload of starving and emaciated prisoners who had arrived unexpectedly at Buchenwald from the Gross Rosen concentration camp, after being in transit for 9 days in January 1945; these prisoners had been previously evacuated from Auschwitz. Pister had testified earlier that, out of 800 prisoners on the train, only 300 were still alive 3 weeks later “in spite of hot baths and medical treatment.”

In his testimony, Pister denied that Jews had been sent on “death transports,” saying that he “knew as little about so-called death transports as I did about so-called extermination camps.”

He said that prisoners who were not fit for work were transferred to Bergen-Belsen; he then made the following startling statement:

“I state here, under oath, that Bergen-Belsen was never known as an extermination camp. Neither was Auschwitz.”

Pister pointed out that “from one such so-called extermination transport so far five Jews have taken the witness chair in this courtroom.” He also pointed out that, in 1945, one transport of prisoners unfit for work could not be sent to Bergen-Belsen because that camp was overcrowded.

Pister asked:

“If Bergen-Belsen was an extermination camp, how could it have been overcrowded?”

Pister’s defense attorney questioned him about the movie that had been shown on the first day of the trial, asking “in what condition did you leave the camp? I mean, is it accurate what was shown in this movie – corpses lying around, things like that?”

Bodies found lying around by the American liberators

Bodies piled up after the camp was liberated

In answer to these questions, Hermann Pister testified as follows:

“People died daily. On account of the scarcity of coal and oil, cremation was not possible anymore. We buried as many as we could, right up to the day before my departure.”

Contrary to Pister’s testimony that there was no coal to burn the bodies at Buchenwald, American soldiers, who arrived after the camp was liberated, told about seeing partially burned bodies in the ovens, as though the cremation process had been interrupted by the liberators.

The photo below, taken on April 24th, exactly 13 days after the liberation of the camp, when a group of U.S. Congressmen visited Buchenwald, shows a partially burned body in the oven.

Congressman looks inside Buchenwald oven April 24, 1945

Under cross-examination by the prosecution, Hermann Pister became so rattled by the questions put to him by Lt. Col. Denson that he finally confessed on the witness stand, in answer to a question about whether he was responsible for extending the railroad line from Buchenwald to the city of Weimar, that he was “responsible for everything.”

His defense attorney, Dr. Wacker, then asked that the proceedings be stopped because Herr Pister’s ill health was preventing him from paying attention to the questions. Pister had been complaining about dizziness since the trial began.

Before he lost it, and inadvertently confessed to everything, Pister had denied all responsibility, blaming everything on the big shots who were on trial at Nuremberg.

He denied knowing anything about the hooks on the wall in the morgue where prisoners were allegedly strangled to death.

Hooks on the wall of the morgue at Buchenwald

Pister was sentenced to be hanged by the American Military Tribunal. The judges declared that Pister was guilty of participating in the “common plan” to violate the Laws and Usages of War because he had been the Commandant in the camp during the time that Russian Communist Commissars were executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. The Tribunal ruled that these executions were a violation of the Geneva Convention of 1929 which Germany had signed, although the Soviet Union had not.

Although Pister wasn’t present when the Commissars were executed, under the Allies’ “common plan” concept of co-responsibility, he should have made it his business to be there, so that he could have countermanded Hitler’s orders.

The Commandant of Dachau, Martin Gottfried Weiss, was also convicted as a war criminal by an American Military Tribunal and executed because he had not stopped the medical experiments ordered by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, nor the execution of Soviet Communist Commissars ordered by Adolf Hitler.

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