Rough American Justice: Interview with Tomaz Jardim on the Mauthausen Trials
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. His articles—often interviews of writers, scholars and artists—appear on the History News Network (hnn.us) site, Crosscut.com, Real Change and in other periodicals. He is a former chair of the World Peace through Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association and has a special interest in human right and atrocity law.
Defendants in the Mauthausen trial. Standing: August Eigruber.
When Nazi war crimes and justice are mentioned, many recall the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried 22 captured military and political leaders of Germany’s Third Reich and led to the execution of ten of the defendants. The Nuremberg trials are often seen as reflecting the highest democratic ideals of the American justice system.
However, almost 1,700 less prominent war criminals were tried in a series of largely overlooked postwar American military commission proceedings. The atrocities at issue were monstrous, but questionable interrogations, lax rules of evidence, lack of appellate process, and other vexing issues flawed the expedited proceedings.
Historian Dr. Tomaz Jardim meticulously examines the most significant of these military tribunals in his groundbreaking new book The Mauthausen Trial: American Military Justice in Germany (Harvard University Press). Tens of thousands of inmates died at the hands of their captors at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria during the course of the Second World War. The camp was notorious for brutal treatment of prisoners used as slave laborers.
As Dr. Jardim recounts, the 1946 Mauthausen trial of 61 accused war criminals lasted 36 days. The prosecution presented an array of charges of the most horrendous war crimes including torture, murder, intentional starving of prisoners, and other atrocities.
The trial resulted in the conviction of all of the defendants and the issuance of 58 death sentences, more than any other trial in American history. On May 27, 1947, 49 of the men convicted of war crimes were hanged at Landsberg Prison near Munich, the largest mass execution in American history.
Dr. Jardim’s book has been praised for its research and thoughtful presentation of the investigation of the crimes at Mauthausen, the trial, and the fate of the accused war criminals. History professor Rebecca Wittmann, author of Beyond Justice, commented: “Beautifully written and a thrilling read, The Mauthausen Trial is an invaluable contribution to the literature on Nazism, war crimes, and Allied punishment.” And Prof. Lawrence R. Douglas, author of The Memory of Justice wrote: “This book will take its place as the standard work on the Mauthausen trial in English. Jardim does an excellent job of showing how survivors participated in every aspect of the case and how the prosecution sought to use an innovative theory of responsibility that was ironically lost upon the court. He makes a convincing case for the continuing relevance of this largely overlooked trial, a point well taken now that military commissions are back in vogue.”
Dr. Jardim teaches history at Ryerson University In Toronto, Ontario. He has also taught at Concordia University and was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. His research areas include the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and in particular, war crimes trials, and he now is working on a book on the three trials of Ilse Koch, the notorious wife of the commandant of Buchenwald concentration camp.
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What was the Mauthausen trial for war crimes and how did it compare to the postwar Nuremberg trials?
There’s a general misperception about postwar trials. When you mention them, people immediately think Nuremberg.
As I try to make clear in my book, Nuremberg is the exception to the rule. Twenty-two defendants were tried at Nuremberg according to a body of law created by the victorious Allies after the Second World War. The Allies coordinated together and put on trial the 22 highest ranking surviving members of the Nazi state for crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, and war crimes. As such, these trials were a category unto themselves.
The trials at Nuremberg were a tiny minority of the Nazi war crime trials conducted at war’s end. The vast majority [of accused perpetrators] were tried instead before American military commission courts set up on the grounds of Dachau concentration camp after the war. The Mauthausen trial is simply one of the largest of these trials, but there were close to 500 trials that took place at Dachau involving almost 1,700 war crimes defendants. These proceedings occurred at the very same time that the prosecution at Nuremberg tried a few dozen perpetrators.
The Mauthausen trial is really a part of a trial system that operated according to an entirely different body of law with a different logic to it and a different outcome. People who know something about these trials assume that there was a certain level of coordination between the jurists working at Nuremberg and those at Dachau, which was not the case.
I asked Benjamin Frerenz, who was later a chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg and who also worked at Dachau, about the relationship between these two [proceedings]. He said, “Nothing. You can’t compare the two. Comparing the trials at Dachau to the trials at Nuremberg is not like comparing even apples to oranges. It’s like comparing apples to trucks.” That’s a dramatic description of how dramatically different the proceedings were.
The Mauthausen trial was one of the largest trials that set out to prosecute 61 suspects from this Austrian concentration camp. Like all the trials at Dachau, it was a rapid trial. The time given to each perpetrator averaged to about four hours of court time. The trial lasted a total of 36 days of court time. All 61 were found guilty, which was standard at Dachau. Fifty-eight of them were sentenced to death.
The court rules were established by the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army and had no relation whatever to the charter established for the Nuremberg proceeding. The prosecutors at Dachau did not look to Nuremberg for trial precedent, but they looked back to the military canon of cases as far back as the Civil War to see how the military dealt with abuses of civilians and POWs in the past.
Can you talk about what happened at Mauthausen? You go to great lengths to distinguish between a concentration camp and a death camp.
Mauthausen is an interesting camp. Historians of the Holocaust tend to divide camps into two categories. They look at the death camps such as Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, to a degree Auschwitz, and Majdanek -- places established expressly for the murder of Jews of Europe and other populations such as Gypsies. They differ from the concentration camps, where many died but their purpose was not mass killing. Their purpose was to concentrate prisoners of war, political opponents of the regime, religious and racial minorities that were enemies of the Reich. Death was certainly the product of those institutions but it was not the sole reason for them. They were generally pools of slave labor and people died at horrific rates, but people were not brought there only to die. They were severe penal institutions.
Mauthausen doesn’t neatly fit into either category as a death camp or a concentration camp. Mauthausen was set up in Austria in 1938 immediately after the Anschluss. It was established to deal with political opponents in Austria. Jews were also sent there, but in small numbers initially. The largest initial population there after political prisoners was Soviet POWs, once the war began.
Mauthausen bridged the death camp-concentration camp categories because of what happened there. On one hand, it is considered by most to be a concentration camp because huge populations of prisoners were brought there. About 200,000 people were brought there to work as slave laborers in stone quarries, which were established around Mauthausen. There were 49 satellite camps that used their labor in different ways. Some also worked in underground rocket factories.
Unlike some of the other concentration camps, however, the death rate is particularly high -- about one hundred thousand of the two hundred thousand who wound up at Mauthausen died. And there was a gas chamber at Mauthausen, which was used relatively frequently, so there was actually the mechanism for mass killing at Mauthausen.
There are people who wound up at Mauthausen who were never registered because they were brought there to be murdered, and they were murdered in substantial numbers. It’s not a death camp in the sense that the population by and large was not slated for mass killing as the prime purpose, yet killing was on the agenda for much of the camp population.
It’s interesting that Mauthausen was in Austria -- and that came up as an issue at trial.
Yes, and the staff and leadership of Mauthausen was made up of Austrians. Of course, the Austrians after the war tended -- and somewhat successfully immediately after the war -- to cast themselves as the first victims of Nazism [claiming] that they were the first to be occupied by the Nazis against their will. Yet we know that there were many enthusiastic supporters of Nazism in Austria. The joining of Austria with the Reich was not unpopular. And the concentration camps in Austria were extremely important locations of Nazi crimes.
You write about the doctors at Mauthausen. What was their role?
Mauthausen wasn’t a central scene of medical experiments on prisoners. The doctors who were tried at the Mauthausen trial were involved generally in the mass killing of prisoners. It wasn’t their crimes in terms of experiments on prisoners, but their role in killing sick prisoners. Doctors administered gasoline-filled injections to kill prisoners. And a chief pharmacist at the camp dispensed the Zyclon B [poison gas] crystals for the gas chambers. So the medical staff was very much involved in the killing process and selecting prisoners for death.
Can you talk about the prosecution investigation of Mauthausen and how the 61 defendants were selected for trial?
Yes. There’s two different processes on the road to trial.
The U.S. military was quite unprepared for the degree of atrocity it discovered when they uncovered concentration camps. They famously arrived at subcamp of Buchenwald, the first camp they liberated, and they were absolutely shocked by what they discovered there. As a result, they put together war crimes investigations to catalog the crimes that they discovered in concentration camps as they were liberated and also prepared dossiers for trial.
But, like many of these liberated camps, the army had no idea about Mauthausen and what they’d stumble on. They walked into this camp, and there were literally hundreds of corpses littering the camp and prisoners in the most horrific state, teetering between life and death.
Only a handful of war crimes investigators wound up on the scene. They had no training whatsoever and, according to one investigator I interviewed, many of them were simply shell-shocked tank officers who were sent there because it was thought of as something easy they could do. They arrived there with a duty to interview people on the scene to understand what happened there, to gather documentary evidence, to identify the perpetrators.
They were completely overwhelmed by the scale of the atrocity, the size of the camp, and what happened there. They had no trained translators, no trained clerks. A remarkable upshot of that is they were forced to rely on liberated prisoners to complete their investigation. Of course, this has an immensely empowering effect on these prisoners who are determined to track down the people who had tormented them and killed their comrades.
Remarkably, prisoners were hired on to translate during interrogations and sometimes conduct interrogations, and to act as clerks, to gather documentary evidence. They wrote histories of the camp. The prisoners, in a sense, drove the investigative process that was overseen by the Army. They also helped compile lists of the SS for arrest. As a result of these lists, the POW camps were scoured for prisoners who could be identified as part of the Mauthausen staff. Gradually, those people were selected out of the POWs and all brought to Dachau.
How then did they choose the final 61 defendants?
The reason they chose only 61 suspects out of at least 200 Mauthausen suspects was part of the strategy of trial. The problem was that the army was short-staffed during the investigation stage and they depended on survivors. The same thing happened with the trials themselves. They literally wound up with 15,000 war crime suspects [from all camps] in their custody. How long would it take to try 15,000 people?
They realize they need to come up with a very efficient strategy for trying these people. The 61 Mauthausen defendants were selected according to the strategy for trial built around the “common design” charge developed by the prosecution. The idea was that they couldn’t try 200 war crimes suspects from Mauthausen for individual acts of murder and atrocity. It would take them forever. Rather, they put the camp itself on trial. They hoped to have the military judges declare Mauthausen a criminal institution, and to declare everybody who was there and who contributed to the upkeep of the system, no matter their role, guilty.
How did they do that? What they first had to show in court that Mauthausen was a criminal enterprise. To do that, they selected defendants who represented every aspect of the functioning of the camp, and that’s how they wound up with the specific 61 who were selected for trial. They wanted people from the political department who interrogated and tortured prisoners. They wanted people from the camp administration. They wanted guards from the watchtowers. They wanted civilians who used Mauthausen prisoners in the quarries. They wanted kapos who were brought there as prisoners but took on supervisory positions over other inmates and abused them in the process. They wanted the doctors on trial.
They painted his broad picture of complicity and asked the court to declare Mauthausen a criminal enterprise and then to declare all of these people guilty because they helped maintain this criminal enterprise. Then, with Mauthausen declared criminal, they simply conducted subsequent proceedings, which would required little time at all. They asked the court to take “judicial notice” of the criminality of Mauthausen so in future proceedings they wouldn’t need to prove that again. Then all of the remaining suspects in custody could be whisked through these rapid proceedings, given that the court already acknowledged the criminal nature of Mauthausen, and basically just judge whether the subsequent defendants were there or not, whether they could be connected to this criminal enterprise and handed a sentence -- and so these trials often lasted only a matter of hours.
Didn’t criticism of the proceedings arise because the “common design” theory worked to the detriment of individual defenses?
Absolutely. The defense correctly raises alarms about this because you’re basically saying that if they were there, they were guilty. If you were at Mauthausen, whether you were the cook or the hangman, you in your own little way were seen as contributing to the criminality of this camp and therefore you were guilty. The chief prosecutor William Denson even said to the court, “I’m going to present evidence of atrocity, but I don’t need to show that anybody in the dock committed any specific act of atrocity. All I need to show is that they were present at Mauthausen and that they helped keep up the system.” The defense responded, “What can we say to get our defendants off the hook if the prosecution says we don’t need to show that any of the defendants participated in any specific act of atrocity?”
“All we need to show is that they were there and were aware of the system of atrocity” -- this is the prosecution speaking -- “and there were corpses all over the camp and of course they knew that murder was a product of the camp, which it certainly was, and therefore they are responsible for playing a role in keeping this machinery of destruction going and therefore are collectively guilty of mass murder.”
The prosecution was criticized and there was justification to the defense claim that it was hard to give the defendants a full and fair trial according to the charges.
The other major criticism of the trial were the rules of evidence, particularly the admission of hearsay evidence.
You stress the role of survivors, and how they played a critical and heroic role in the investigation. Some survivors actually hid records of atrocities such as the Mauthausen “death books” at the risk of their lives.
Absolutely. That is a remarkable thing about the trial system. The military jurists and war crimes investigators on the ground were flying by the seats of their pants and understandably. The war had just ended and they uncovered atrocities on an unprecedented scale. There were literally thousands upon thousands of perpetrators who were involved in these crimes. They [the military] were simply overwhelmed by the evidence and the sheer number of cases they had to deal with.
It really is the survivors who step in to allow this proceeding to go forward. As I describe, the investigation phase was driven by the survivors and their determination to help at the scene of the crime in the immediate wake of their liberation.
But then the trials were also driven by the survivors. The prosecution had key evidentiary material showing unambiguously the degree that mass murder was the raison d’être of Mauthausen. But the day-to-day proceedings of the court involved survivor after survivor being able to walk up to the dock and point to one of the 61 defendants and say, “I saw him do the following things ...” It’s remarkable and you get a sense of the empowerment of those survivors must have felt walking to the prisoner’s dock as the accusers and playing such an active role in the prosecution of their former tormentors.
The testimony of the American Mauthausen survivor, Lieutenant Commander Jack Taylor (a Navy commando), was very powerful. He described the horrid forms of killing at Mauthausen from hanging, gassing, and shooting prisoners to beatings with shovels or axes or hammers, injections with benzene and magnesium chloride, drowning, starving, and mashing in a concrete mixer. The prosecution viewed Taylor’s testimony as critical to their case.
Absolutely. The prosecutors found themselves in a real bind. It’s important to remember that in preparing for these trials and conducting investigations, that these trials were totally unprecedented. We’re used to understanding the Holocaust or Nazi crimes. We’ve all seen the newsreels and know what the camps looked like. At that time, there was still a process of digestion underway and really coming to terms with what happened at these places.
Lieutenant Colonal William Denson, the chief prosecutor, was not on the ground at Mauthausen. He was a Harvard Law graduate and came over to Germany to conduct these trials. He hadn’t been at the scene of these crimes. He was presented with a report of the atrocities and he was completely overwhelmed. In his later recollections, he said, “Frankly, at the beginning, we couldn’t believe it. It was too horrific.” But he read from testimony after testimony, and it was all so similar, and he met with the survivors and saw the documentary evidence, and he knew this happened. And he knew these trials had to be rapid, and he worried that when he introduced his case, that the judges who hadn’t been at the scene of these crimes would not be able to grasp how horrific these crimes were and might even doubt the testimony of victim witnesses.
This is where Jack Taylor comes in. Denson locates this American military prisoner who had only arrived in the last month of the camp’s existence. He actually laid tile around the gas chamber and he witnessed firsthand the machinery of destruction at Mauthausen in full swing and made mental note of everything that happened there. And Denson felt this was his essential card at the opening of the trial. He worried that if the judges heard the testimony of German or Austrian or Polish witnesses, they might be hesitant to believe their stories of atrocity, but Denson thought that “if I can get an American soldier in uniform to take the stand, speaking in plain English, who would have no reason to exaggerate the things he had seen, and to describe the level of atrocity at Mauthausen, then the judges will be convinced of everything that happened there.” I think that’s very much the effect that Taylor’s testimony had on them.
Can you talk about two of the higher-ranking suspects. You note that the Mauthausen commandant, Franz Ziereis, died before trial, and that a regional Nazi official, August Eigruber, an ardent Nazi, was tried for the crimes at Mauthausen.
The commandant was never brought to trial because he was shot by an American soldier. The story is not entirely clear, but shortly after liberation, there was a chaotic scene with tons of survivors on the ground at Mauthausen interacting with war crimes investigators. They were gathering evidence there and they were also trying to find out what happened to the notorious SS men who ran the camp.
The prisoners, more than anyone else, want to find the commandant, Franz Ziereis. He fled, like the rest of the SS, in anticipation of the Americans, about twenty-four hours before the Americans arrived there. The survivors said they thought he might be at an alpine hunting hut they built some miles from Mauthausen.
As an indication of the close cooperation between survivors and American military personnel, a group of survivors and American military personnel on horseback ride off to find this alpine hut and they find Ziereis and he’s shot. It’s not clear if he was trying to flee or reaching for a weapon. He was brought to a field hospital at Gusen, a subcamp of Mauthausen. He was mortally wounded and he was interrogated for about twenty-four hours before he died.
Again, there was remarkable cooperation between former prisoners and war crimes investigators. The U.S. military didn’t have a German speaker on hand, so they get a prisoner, Hans Marsalek, who was very knowledgeable about what happened at the camp because he’d been there for a few years. He was put in charge of the interrogation of Franz Ziereis. (Hans Marsalek just died a few months ago and I interviewed him.)
They interrogated [Ziereis] and he smoked as he received blood transfusions before he died. He made boastful claims about the number of people who died. He estimated that a million and a half people died there, which is a crazy overestimation. But he also implicated other people. He said Dr. Krebsbach mass murdered prisoners through injections, and that [Erich] Wasicky, the pharmacist, came up with the idea of the gas chamber at Mauthausen. So his testimony is important because he named a number of people before he died shortly thereafter.
The highest-ranking person who came to trial -- and the highest-ranking person of anybody tried at Dachau -- was the gauleiter of Upper Austria, August Eigruber. He was not in day-to-day contact with the camp, but he was the Nazi provincial leader under whose jurisdiction Mauthausen fell. He was clearly involved in the building of the camp and sending prisoners there and he was frequently there to witness executions and perhaps even participated in executions. He was instrumental in cutting bread rations to the camp, which led to mass starvation and the deaths of many people.
Eigruber also managed to escape and a sting was set up. He was ultimately caught in a roadblock after a tip on where he was driving. He was brought to trial and he was unrepentant to the end, an ideologically convinced Nazi.
They got confessions from most of the defendants, but he’s the one they had a tough time cracking. They set up a ruse to get him to talk. They had a group of business people from the city of Linz, about 15 kilometers from Mauthausen, with whom he’d had past contact. The American authorities talked to these business leaders, who were probably benefiting in some ways from the slave labor at Mauthausen. The [Americans] made it clear that they were not pressing charges, but [the business leaders] had better cooperate.
These [business leaders] agreed to sit in a waiting room at Dachau where Eigruber was to be interrogated and Eigruber sat among them. As far as Eigruber knew, each one of them was to be interrogated. These guys, who were coached by the Americans, talked casually to Eigruber. They said, “The American aren’t so bad. All you need is to give them a little information and they’ll let you go,” and things like that. He fell for it. He went into the interrogation and the interrogator decided that, rather than beat him down, he’ll try to puff him up. He gave [Eigruber] some brandy and said, “We know you weren’t particularly involved here, but we are just trying to get some information.” Eigruber wasn’t that involved, but he does admit taking part in an execution and that’s enough to ultimately lead to his hanging in the end.
The panel of judges deliberated only a short time before issuing its decision and the sentences.
The judges recessed for about an hour to consider the fate of all 61 defendants before they came back with a verdict of guilty for all 61 defendants, which was a fairly standard outcome for all of the concentration camp trials at Dachau.
They again recessed and came back and announced sentences. Fifty-eight of the 61 defendants were sentenced to hang. Three of them were deemed part of the common design but were found not complicit to a degree that they deserved death, and were given life sentences.
It’s curious trying to sort out why some were initially spared the noose while others weren’t. The three who were initially spared were guards who worked on the towers outside the camp. They had shot prisoners allegedly trying to escape, which was often a code for execution, but they couldn’t necessarily prove that. And during trial, the defense counsel succeeded in having the court acknowledge that, even in the United States in major penal institutions, if prisoners were fleeing it was standard practice to shoot them in the process of escapes. The question became, could we execute these [guards] for shooting people as they fled from the camp? Nonetheless, they still participated in the common design by assuring the prisoners stayed there and died there. So a few of the guards got life sentences.
The judges handed down these sentences and there was no appeal procedure, but the military authorities conducted reviews of the sentences. Under review, and based on the logic that three of the defendants should not hang, they extended that logic to another nine of the condemned and commuted their sentences also to life imprisonment.
Ultimately what resulted from the trial was that 49 of the 61 original defendants were executed in what was the largest mass execution in American history. The others benefited from weakening of Allied resolve with regard to seeing through the prison sentences because of Cold War pressures. The surviving Mauthausen convicts ended up serving only two or three years -- all getting out by 1952. That results from Cold War political pressure.
And the war crimes proceedings ended in the late 1940s.
The war crimes trials were immensely unpopular in Germany. There was a sense that lower-level perpetrators were simply doing their jobs and that they should be released from prison. And the United States was determined to have the new West German government as a partner in the emerging Cold War, and the U.S. used the release of prisoners as a bargaining chip and ultimately released perpetrators who were in prison as a result of the war crimes trials. In fact, aside from the few defendants who received prison sentences at the first Nuremberg trial, every single defendant tried by the United States after the war, regardless of sentence, who was not executed was out of prison by 1958.
This story has a lot of resonance now with the U.S. military commissions in Guantanamo and elsewhere.
Yesterday I was patched into a conference of judge advocates in Iowa who wanted to ask me about the book.
I’m not a lawyer, but I think the Mauthausen trial is important because it sheds light on the military commission trial system, which is the system in place at Guantanamo Bay. It’s interesting that there’s so much criticism of the judicial system there, for good reason, but the criticism is often couched in terms of contrasting the Guantanamo hearings to Nuremberg. These critics sketch out a narrative in which they say that, after the Second World War, the United States rose to the occasion with Nuremberg and illustrated that even perpetrators responsible for the most horrific crimes would have received the benefits of a full and fair trial and that was the legacy of American justice in the wake of the Second World War, and therefore Guantanamo is a gross deviation from an otherwise noble course.
If you understand the Mauthausen trial and the Dachau trial system, you realize that’s not true at all. In fact, Guantanamo Bay is very much in keeping with how the United States has dealt with the vast majority of war criminals in the past.
The Dachau trials were the common response of the United States to Nazi atrocities after the Second World War, and the Nuremberg trials were very much an exception to the rule. Twenty-two people were tried at the first trial at Nuremberg versus 1,700 who were tried at Dachau by the military court system akin to those at Guantanamo Bay.
The legacy of the Mauthausen trial is mixed. We judge trials according to different goals and outcomes. Obviously, part of what a trial is established to do is to punish those guilty of criminal acts. As a practice in punishment, the Dachau trials were quite successful.
After the war, there were a number of major concentration camp trials for Treblinka, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and others. The verdicts in these cases are often disappointing. People who were clearly complicit in the murder of millions of people got off with ten- or fifteen-year sentences and thousands more were left unprosecuted.
The trials at Dachau went a long way in assuring that ordinary low-ranking concentration camp personnel were prosecuted and punished. As an exercise in expeditious punishment and judgment, the trials were successful. Another victory of these trials was the voice they gave to survivors, even though this wasn’t an intended outcome.
However, the protests of the defense concerning the fairness of these trials cannot be ignored. From a legal perspective and judging by standard criteria for what constitutes a fair trial, you cannot conclude that these [defendants] received a fair trial as we understand fair trials. There was no appellate procedure. The prosecution often relied on hearsay evidence. There were confessions extracted under seemingly dubious circumstances. The judges clearly didn’t seem to deliberate very long on each of these cases. And the list goes on.
Many people react to [these shortcomings], and we see a parallel at Guantanamo Bay, when people say, “Does it really matter? These guys are guilty.” For all my criticism of the trial, the [Mauthausen defendants were] unquestionably guilty and deserving of punishment, and that is clear from the evidence presented. But the reasons why that doesn’t justify unfair judicial proceedings is because of the impact of the trials outside the courtroom.
These postwar trials were not established only to mete out punishment, but also to have a pedagogical and instructive impact. The idea was that Nazi crimes would be brought to the fore, that people would understand -- especially the German public -- the real depravity and violence of Nazism, the dangers of ideological fanaticism, and through the fair trial of those responsible for those crimes, the German public would also understand the benefits of liberal democracy and a free judiciary.
But what happened is that news of the conduct of the Dachau trial, such as allegations of abuse of detainees during interrogation, made it out to the press. As a result, instead of prompting the German public to reflect on the evils of Nazism and their own role in supporting the Nazi state, the defendants were seen as victims of an unjust trial system, and it backfired on the American attempt to use these trials as a pedagogical tool. Lawrence Douglas, a legal historian, wrote that a trial cannot serve a pedagogical purpose unless it’s perceived as fair by its intended audience.
We see parallels with the American administration of justice at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. This is not only about punishing people responsible for atrocities; it’s also about trying to reach out to the milieu from which they came. Clearly, abuses undercut that mission and have the potential to turn otherwise moderate people against this process.
As you stress, a measure of justice came out of the trial. At the moment of execution, you write, virtually every convicted defendant was unrepentant.
There was very little contrition. The most common sentiment in their final statements was that they were victims of an unjust trial system, that they were not bigwigs and didn’t choose to be at Mauthausen, and that this was an injustice because there’s no reason they should be put to death.
What sparked your interest in the Mauthausen trial? Did it grow out of your previous research?
I don’t come at this from the legal angle, but as a historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Trials, by virtue of the fact that the prosecution is required to prove the guilt of the accused, therefore generate huge amounts of documentary evidence. I had an interest in exploring the trial and seeing what evidence was there. Nobody had looked at the Mauthausen trial before. I didn’t know much about the Dachau trials, and I found that remarkable.
Once I started reading about the trials, I thought, why is it that Nuremberg continues to be this paradigm through which everybody understands postwar justice when we have this other trial system where the vast majority of concentration camp perpetrators and Holocaust crimes were addressed?
My interest was exploring that trial system to understand how Holocaust and Nazi atrocities were depicted in the courtroom. I share the big interest these days in the perpetrators of Nazi crimes, their motives, and their ideological outlook, and the trials provide a window onto that. Here you had 61 defendants under interrogation or on the stand trying to answer for their crimes and explain how they wound up at Mauthausen and how they felt it was justified to participate in the mass murder of so many people.
It was a triple interest for me: an interest in Mauthausen and the history of the concentration camps and the Holocaust; an interest in perpetrator motivation; and an interest more broadly in this trial system that seemed relatively neglected by researchers. I knew from preliminary exploration of the archives that there were tens of thousands of pages of documents, evidence, testimony and interrogations, and I thought the trials would be an interesting way of getting at the history of Mauthausen and the history of the postwar trial program.
Was much of your research in Germany, then?
Because the trial was conducted by the U.S. military, all of the records of the trial are housed in Washington, D.C., archives, as well as evidentiary material seized at Mauthausen such as the death registries that record 72,000 deaths and other matters. I went to Germany and to Austria to conduct research, mostly into the history of Mauthausen camp, and to investigate the background of some of the more prominent defendants at the trial.
Would you like to add anything about what you hope readers or students will take away from the book?
The intention of the book was to write a satisfying history of Mauthausen and a satisfying legal history of the trial without making it pedantic and still using the narrative arc of the trial as a way to draw people into the important analytical, historical and political questions that the trial raises. My hope is that I’ve produced a readable and compelling book.
Congratulations and thank you for your insights on this little-known history.
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