Scrapbookpages Blog

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.    (more…)