Justice at Dachau: The Trials of an American Prosecutor


The world remembers Nuremberg, where a handful of Nazi policymakers were brought to justice, but nearly forgotten are the proceedings at Dachau, where hundreds of Nazi guards, officers, and doctors stood trial for personally taking part in the torture and execution of prisoners inside the Dachau, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald concentration camps. In Justice at Dachau, Joshua M. Greene, maker of the award winning documentary film Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, recreates the Dachau trials and reveals...
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Justice at Dachau: The Trials of an American Prosecutor

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The world remembers Nuremberg, where a handful of Nazi policymakers were brought to justice, but nearly forgotten are the proceedings at Dachau, where hundreds of Nazi guards, officers, and doctors stood trial for personally taking part in the torture and execution of prisoners inside the Dachau, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald concentration camps. In Justice at Dachau, Joshua M. Greene, maker of the award winning documentary film Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, recreates the Dachau trials and reveals the dramatic story of William Denson, a soft-spoken young lawyer from Alabama whisked from teaching law at West Point to leading the prosecution in the largest series of Nazi trials in history.

In a makeshift courtroom set up inside Hitler’s first concentration camp, Denson was charged with building a team from lawyers who had no background in war crimes and determining charges for crimes that courts had never before confronted. Among the accused were Dr. Klaus Schilling, responsible for hundreds of deaths in his “research” for a cure for malaria; Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, a Harvard psychologist turned Gestapo informant; and one of history’s most notorious female war criminals, Ilse Koch, “Bitch of Buchenwald,” whose penchant for tattooed skins and human bone lamps made headlines worldwide.

Denson, just thirty-two years old, with one criminal trial to his name, led a brilliant and successful prosecution, but nearly two years of exposure to such horrors took its toll. His wife divorced him, his weight dropped to 116 pounds, and he collapsed from exhaustion. Worst of all was the pressure from his army superiors to bring the trials to a rapid end when their agenda shifted away from punishing Nazis to winning the Germans’ support in the emerging Cold War. Denson persevered, determined to create a careful record of responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust. When, in a final shocking twist, the United States used clandestine reversals and commutation of sentences to set free those found guilty at Dachau, Denson risked his army career to try to prevent justice from being undone.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A new American hero--William Denson--bursts forward in the riveting pages of Justice at Dachau. An Alabama human rights lawyer, Denson was sent to Europe by the U.S. Army to prosecute Nazi butchers feigning innocence in the bloody aftermath of the Second World War. Brilliantly written and fastidiously researched, Joshua M. Greene’s narrative builds chapter by chapter in dramatic Hollywood-like fashion. Each war criminal Denson convicts brings a cheer to the heart. This is historical storytelling at its finest.”
-Douglas Brinkley, Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and co-editor of Witness to America: An Illustrated Documentary History of the United States from the Revolution to Today

"Justice at Dachau is a mesmerizing account of one of history's most infamous periods. Joshua Greene takes the reader back in time by weaving together a riveting narrative of the trial and its central figure, Judge Advocate William Denson, a true hero and humanitarian. This book is destined to be a classic among Holocaust histories."
-Patrick O'Donnell, author of Beyond Valor and Into the Rising Sun

The Washington Post
Justice at Dachau, a compelling and dramatic courtroom account written by documentary filmmaker Joshua M. Greene ("Witnesses: Voices From the Holocaust"), focuses on an unsung and unlikely hero, William Denson, an officer in the Army's judge advocate general corps who was sent to Germany to prosecute war criminals in 1946. — Jonathan Kirsch
Publishers Weekly
The protagonist of this tale is William Denson, a 32-year-old U.S. Army lawyer teaching at West Point who, at the end of WWII, was summoned to head the prosecution of Nazi war crimes perpetrated at four concentration camps: Dachau, Mauthausen, Floss-enburg and Buchenwald. Unlike the Nuremberg trials, which are well documented and well known, these trials, which took place at Dachau, have remained obscure. The 177 men tried (all were convicted) at Dachau were doctors, guards and soldiers who, despite their low rank, contributed significantly to the horrors of the Holocaust. Their crime, according to Denson, was participation in a "common design" to commit brutal acts against humanity. The trials demanded two years of arduous investigation and exhausting intensity by Denson. Sleep evaded him as images of Ilse Koch, the "Bitch of Buchenwald" (who killed prisoners and stripped their skin for lampshades), and shrunken skulls filled Denson's dreams, and loss of appetite made the once vibrant lawyer grow thin. Nevertheless, he persisted in what he considered his obligation to his country and to humanity, even while his superiors pressed for speedy trials and quick convictions. Greene, who produced and directed the award-winning documentary Witness: Voices of the Holocaust, does a masterful job of gathering the reams of documents and piles of evidence and forming them into a cohesive and gripping story. His writing is simple but effective, without histrionics yet demanding attention. Denson died in 1998; this is a fitting and much-needed tribute to his work. (On sale Apr. 8) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Greene, producer and director of the documentary Witness: Voices of the Holocaust, has brought to light the story of William Denson, the young army lawyer from Alabama who at the end of World War II became chief prosecutor at the trials of those who staffed some of the most notorious concentration camps of the Third Reich. We are familiar with the Nuremberg Trials, but what is not as well known are the series of trials held at the Dachau concentration camp, where those who worked at the Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Flossenberg camps were brought to account. Working in primitive conditions with a very small staff, Denson won convictions against 177 Nazis, a 100 percent conviction rate, with 97 of these hanged for their crimes against humanity. The defendants included the notorious Ilse Koch, who kept a collection of tattooed skin taken from camp victims, and Dr. Karl Schilling, who, in his quest for a malaria cure, used prisoners as human guinea pigs. In a tragic irony, as a result of the looming Cold War, Denson would see many of his convictions set aside by Gen. Lucius Clay, the American military commander in West Germany, who wished to win over the German public by a show of leniency. With this book, Greene has recounted events and individuals that need to be remembered. Recommended for all public libraries.-Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A "remarkable man" is honored, half a century after the fact, for his role in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. By the end of 1948, William Denson "had prosecuted more Nazis than any other lawyer in the entire postwar period": 177 prison guards and officers in all, every one of whom was found guilty, nearly a hundred of whom were sentenced to death. Yet his legal successes at proving the guilt of the butchers of Dachau, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald were overshadowed even at the time by the more widely publicized prosecutions of the German political leadership at Nuremburg. Greene (Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, 2000) revisits the prosecution, sharply noting how the overwhelming evidence of Nazi crimes converted Denson from a detached, scholarly student of the conflict who believed that "even the most decent human being, subjected to the right pressures, is capable of doing things he could never imagine himself doing" to a committed avenger of the wrongs the Nazis inflicted. To effect that legal retribution, Greene writes, Denson had the formidable task of proving that the Nazi regime was by definition a criminal enterprise; he also "made damn sure there was independent evidence corroborating what the defendant had done" rather than rely solely on the testimony of former concentration-camp inmates. Denson’s legal prowess was overcome, not by the defense--his German opponent, sounding much like Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremburg, was surely brilliant--but by the politics of the Cold War, by which the American government exerted pressure on the military to sweep aside Nazi crimes in the interest of lining West Germany squarely on its side against the Soviet Union. Oneresult, Greene writes, was the early freeing of the so-called "bitch of Buchenwald," a female guard whom Buckner characterized as "a sadistic pervert of monumental proportions, unmatched in history." Buckner lost the argument against commutation and wound up as "the Army’s principal critic," a stand that cost him much in those early days of McCarthyism. A cogent, well-written contribution to legal and military history, and fitting tribute to a principled man. Agent: Joanna Pulcini/Linda Chester Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767908795
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 852,359
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua M. Greene received exclusive access to Denson’s personal archives, which included trial transcripts, newspaper clips, and a trove of photographs and letters. Using these, Greene has reconstructed the Dachau trials with the immediacy and excitement of a legal thriller. Justice at Dachau resurrects an American hero, a real-life Atticus Finch, and shines a light on a part of World War II that established precedents still used today to bring war criminals to justice.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2003

    Haphazard writing does not do justice to the subject

    'Justice at Dachau' should be an informative book, but it isn't. It may be entertaining reading, but it lacks the consistency and pertinent details that a nonfiction book should have. For instance: Greene says that 1,672 Nazis were brought to trial, elsewhere he says 177, and there is no attempt to explain this discrepancy. (Were there other trials he didn't write about?) As if that were not confusing enough, the figures he gives for each trial--Dachau, 40; Mauthausen, 61; Flossenburg, 40; and Buchenwald, 31--add up to 172! So what is he talking about? Similarly, he says that 97 were executed; later he says that 426 death sentences were reduced to 298. Where DOES he get these numbers?! He does not even provide a list of the names of the defendants (much less their crimes and their sentences)! Most of those he does include he mentions by last name only. He seems more interested in writing dialogue for a suspense novel than he does in providing a clear, factual overview of these very important trials. I for one was left with more questions and confusion than answers and clarification.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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