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January 3, 2011

the strange case of Dachau Commandant Alex Piorkowsi

Filed under: Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 8:18 am

In the 12 years that I’ve had my web site up, I’ve gotten lots of e-mail from students who were studying the case of Alex Piorkowski, one of the Commandants of Dachau, who was convicted by an American Military Tribunal held at Dachau.  I have often wondered why there is so much interest in this very minor war crimes case after more than 60 years.

The Alex Piorkowski case started in early January 1947, and he was sentenced to death by hanging on January 17, 1947. This was a subsidiary case conducted by the AMT after the main proceedings against Martin Gottfried Weiss, and 39 others on the Dachau concentration camp staff, which began in November 1945.

Alex Bernhard Piorkowski was the Commandant at Dachau in 1941 and 1942, but during the winter of 1941 and 1942, he was away from the camp for extended periods due to illness.

Harold Marcuse wrote in his book, Legacies of Dachau,  that Heinrich Himmler had “punished several of the sadistic and corrupt concentration camp commandants” including Piorkowski who was fired from his position as Commandant of Dachau, as of September 1, 1942.  He was replaced by Martin Gottfried Weiss. However, it was brought out at the AMT proceedings that Piorkowski had been transferred out of Dachau in June 1942.

Heinz Höhne mentions in his book, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS, that Piorkowski was indicted for murder, but not convicted, by SS officer Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, who was an investigator and the judge of an SS special court.  Berben mentioned in his official history of Dachau that investigations of camp conditions at Dachau were conducted by Morgen between May and July of 1943. However, by that time, the Commandant of Dachau was Martin Gottfried Weiss, the successor of Piorkowski.

It was Dr. Konrad Morgen’s custom to establish himself at a concentration camp for months and do a thorough investigation.  Apparently, Morgen had learned that Piorkowski had committed murder at Dachau more than a year before Morgen began his investigation.

According to Paul Berben in his book Dachau 1933 – 1945, The Official History, Piorkowski was later kicked out of the Nazi party, even though he had not been convicted in Morgen’s court. Berben wrote that Piorkowski “rarely entered the prisoners’ camp. He was not active, and left most things in the hands of his subordinates. They were given a free reign and could treat prisoners as they wished.”

Alex Piorkowski after he was captured by the British in 1945

The photo above supposedly shows Alex Piorkowski, but there is a remarkable resemblance to another Dachau Commandant, Hans Lortiz, whose photo is shown at the Dachau Museum.

Photo of Hans Loritz in the Dachau Museum

Like all the other German war criminals who were prosecuted by the AMT, Piorkowski was accused of participating in a “common design” to violate the Laws and Usages of War under the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1929. His alleged crimes included acts of brutality against concentration camp prisoners who were civilians, or members of the armed forces, in countries that were allied with America in World War II.

The crimes which were charged against the accused at the Dachau trials were only those committed between January 1, 1942 and May 8, 1945 during the time that Germany was engaged in a war against America and its allies.  Piorkowski had only been present in the Dachau camp for approximately 6 months during this period. Under the “common design” concept of co-responsibility, Piorkowski was guilty of any violations of the Laws and Usages of War while he was the Commandant, regardless of his personal conduct toward the prisoners.

The Piorkowski case was unremarkable and would have been quickly swept into the dust bin of history, had it not been for the vigorous protest of his conviction by the chief defense council, Major Bigelow Boysen of the US Army. During the proceedings in his case, Piorkowski was accused of working with an SS man named Sitte on the medical experiments at Dachau in 1942. Major Boysen had checked the SS records and learned that Piorkowski and Dr. Sitte had not served at Dachau during the same time period.

Boysen believed so strongly in Piorkowski’s innocence that he even tried to bring the case before the Supreme Court of the United States, but it was rejected. After Boysen was discharged from the Army, he continued to fight for the release of Piorkowski, although he was no longer responsible for his defense.

As in all the Dachau cases, Piorkowski’s trial was reviewed by the US Military after sentencing. The lawyer who reviewed the Piorkowski case was First Lieutenant Elmer Moody. At the end of his report, Moody wrote, regarding Piorkowski: “He participated in the common design to a very substantial degree. The evidence is sufficient to support the findings and sentence of the Court.”

Major Boysen tried to get clemency for Piorkowski by pointing out letters that had been sent to the War Crimes Group by former inmates who claimed that Piorkowski had not committed any atrocities. These letters, which were probably sent at the suggestion of Boysen himself, were dismissed by the War Crimes Group because it didn’t matter what Piorkowski had personally done in the camp; he was the Commandant of the camp and as such was a participant in the common design to violate the Laws and Usages of War.

According to Joseph Halow’s book, entitled Innocent at Dachau, one of the letter writers was Lt. Col. R.H. Stevens, a Prisoner of War at Dachau. Stevens was a spy in the British Secret Intelligence Service in Holland, who was arrested as a conspirator in the failed plot to kill Hitler with a bomb placed in a Munich beer hall by Georg Elser, a former prisoner at Dachau who had recently been released. In his letter, Stevens described his treatment at Dachau: he was given a private room, not a cell. His room was furnished with a good bed, a desk and a chair. Piorkowski had brought him occasional gifts of flowers or wine or real coffee. He even permitted Stevens to swim in the SS officer’s swimming pool when no one else was around.

Another letter writer, Dr. Konrad Stromenger, a Protestant religious dissident who spent seven years at Dachau, said that the inmates at Dachau were well-fed and rested. He maintained that Dachau, under Piorkowski’s administration, had the best reputation of all the German camps.

As quoted in Halow’s book Innocent at Dachau, the review board, after reading the letters, wrote the following report:

It must be presumed that these statements are as favorable as anything they would have said in court. These two statements were accompanied by others from members of the clergy and from lay persons, all Germans. All of them were found to be without merit by a War Crimes Board of Review on the ground “they testify to individual acts of kindness to individuals, and in no way negative (sic) the atrocious treatment meted out to the vast majority of non-German nationals.”

The prosecution’s case against Piorkowski was based on the testimony of 34 paid witnesses who were former prisoners at Dachau. The defense produced a witness who testified that Piorkowski was bedridden at his home for two months during the winter of 1941-1942 during the time that prosecution witnesses testified that Piorkowski had beaten prisoners in the camp.

Another innovative idea used by the America prosecutors in the war crimes proceedings was that any findings and sentences in the main trials would become matters of judicial notice at subsequent subsidiary trials. In other words, any atrocities proven in a prior trial could be used as proof of guilt against future defendants since they were all being tried under the common design concept.

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 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.

Major Boysen also objected to the inclusion of events that had happened outside the time frame of the period covered by the charges against Piorkowski, which was from January 1, 1942 up to June, 1942 when he had been transferred.

The following quote is from Joseph Halow’s book entitled Innocent at Dachau:

Boysen recalled that the prosecution had spoken with him before the trial, asking him if he would agree to the prosecution’s including in the charges an incident which he indicated had taken place before the period January-June, 1942. This involved the notorious “Christmas tree whippings,” which supposedly took place in Dachau in 1939, when Piorkowski, who was alleged to have been present, was camp custody leader. Boysen had refused, stating that if the prosecution were to include this incident in the dossiers, he would tell the court not to read the dossiers until it made a ruling on the matter.

Major Boysen’s request was denied and the court members did read the dossier. Major Boysen said that this should not have been permitted because it colored the court’s thinking.

In spite of all of Boysen’s efforts to obtain clemency for Alex Piorkowski, he was hanged at Landsberg am Lech prison on October 22, 1948.

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.