Cover image for Justice at Dachau : the trials of an American prosecutor
Justice at Dachau : the trials of an American prosecutor
Greene, Joshua, 1950-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Broadway Books, 2003.
Physical Description:
385 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
KK73.5.D32 G74 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

For nearly two years, William Denson led the prosecution team at Dachau, Germany, that by August 1948 had found 177 Nazis guards and officers guilty of war crimes at Dachau, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Ninety-seven were sentenced to death, 54 to life imprisonment, and the rest to terms of hard labor. After Denson's death in 1998 at the age of 86, his wife sorted out boxes of documents in their basement: 30,000 pages of trial transcripts, miles of microfilm, stacks of photographs and newspaper clippings, death's head insignias, and letters from both SS officers and victims of Nazi horror. Greene, coauthor of Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, posits that with the rise of the cold war, American priorities shifted from punishing Germans to winning Germany's support in the fight against the Soviet Union, and points to the fact that one by one, the sentences of Nazis found guilty at Dachau were either commuted or completely reversed. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 1
Part 1 War's End
1. The Liberation of Dachaup. 7
2. A Call for Trialsp. 13
3. An Appointment in Courtp. 17
4. Preparing for Trialp. 28
Part 2 Dachau
5. Common Designp. 39
6. Credibilityp. 55
7. The Prosecution on Trialp. 65
8. Manna from Heavenp. 79
9. In the Name of Humanityp. 86
10. The Clock of Civilizationp. 98
11. Judgment at Dachaup. 110
Part 3 Mauthausen
12. Christmas, 1945p. 125
13. Preparations Beginp. 130
14. 186 Steps of Deathp. 132
15. A Hollywood Soldierp. 135
16. Death Books, Doctors, Sick Campp. 145
17. Christ's Rebirthp. 151
18. Witnesses for the Prosecutionp. 153
19. "The Pigs Must Perish"p. 162
20. Case for the Defensep. 169
21. Life and Death in the Blockp. 178
22. A Ruling for the Defensep. 183
23. The Oldest Defendantp. 193
24. A Witness for the Defendantsp. 197
25. The Youngest Defendantp. 201
26. Quarrymanp. 205
27. Closing Argumentsp. 215
28. The Verdictsp. 221
29. The Miraclep. 224
30. Flossenburgp. 226
Part 4 Buchenwald
31. In the Shadow of Nurembergp. 231
32. Goethe's Prophecyp. 234
33. A Tour of Buchenwaldp. 241
34. The Buchenwald Reportp. 243
35. Commando 99p. 249
36. The Dachau Death Trainp. 257
37. Tattoos, Lampshades, Shrunken Headsp. 263
38. The Bitchp. 274
39. The Commandantp. 281
40. An American Collaboratorp. 295
41. The Verdictsp. 310
42. The Sentencesp. 314
Part 5 Aftermath
43. Homecoming, 1947p. 319
44. Justice Betrayed, 1948p. 321
45. Senate Hearings Beginp. 325
46. Senate Hearings Concludep. 331
47. Huschip. 343
Epilogue: Fifty Years laterp. 348
Postscriptp. 355
Acknowledgmentsp. 358
Author's Notep. 360
Endnotesp. 365
Indexp. 374