On The Judicial Front Lines In Post-World War II Germany:

A Review of Justice At Dachau: The Trials Of An American Prosecutor


Friday, Apr. 4, 2003

Joshua M. Greene, Justice At Dachau: The Trials Of An American Prosecutor (Broadway Books, 2003)

Nearly fifty years after the end of World War II, some may question why another book related to the Holocaust is necessary, or merits attention. Can there really exist another story that needs telling? In the most basic sense, the answer to these questions is as simple as two words: "Never Forget."

More than that, however, Joshua Greene's recent work, Justice At Dachau: The Trials Of An American Prosecutor, presents insights - into a time, place, event and, especially, a man, the prosecutor on whom it centers - that make it very much worth reading.

Greene is a filmmaker who produced and directed the award-winning documentary film Witness: Voices of the Holocaust, and co-edited a companion guide. Justice at Dachau recounts the virtually unknown experiences of William Denson, a soft-spoken thirty-two-year-old Army attorney.

William Denson's Story: A Legend Among War Crimes Prosecutors

Denson literally single-handedly led the U.S. prosecutions of Nazi war criminals who committed atrocities at the concentration camps at Dachau, Mauthausen, Flossenburg and Buchenwald.

After finishing twenty-one months of trials, Denson secured convictions of 177 Nazis, the largest number convicted by any single prosecutor. Eli Rosenbaum, the current Director of the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations (known as the "Nazi hunting unit"), recently described Denson's accomplishments as a war crimes prosecutor as "legendary among those who work on these types of cases."

Not only does Greene present a flattering, and well-deserved, portrait of Denson, he provides a model for future war crimes prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. In the Nazi war crimes trials, American military defense counsel upheld standards of professionalism even with respect to clients who had once been their enemies, and whom clear evidence showed had committed horrific acts. Seeking to uphold both international law and ideals of American justice, they vigorously defended their clients amidst cries of "victor's justice."

These are facts that should not be forgotten, particularly given that the Bush Administration has promised future war crimes prosecutions in the aftermath of a resolution to the current U.S.-Iraq military conflict.

A Country Lawyer Prosecutes Some of the Nazi Regime's Worst Criminals

Denson prosecuted some of the worst - though not the best known - of Hitler's henchmen. One was Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald," who had prisoners beaten to death so she could collect their tattooed skin. Another was Dr. Klaus Schilling, who murdered hundreds in his so-called research for a cure for malaria. A third was Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, an American psychologist who set himself up as a privileged prisoner inside a concentration camp and killed prisoners who refused to pay him ransom.

Each trial was important. However, they were overshadowed then - and still now - by the contemporaneous Nuremberg trial. There, Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert M. Jackson was prosecuting the surviving leaders of the defeated Third Reich before a panel of international judges.

The difference in resources between the two sets of trials was extraordinary, and demonstrates why Denson deserves a special place as one of history's unsung and underappreciated heroes. For example, Justice Jackson's team numbered more than 640 staff members to prosecute twenty-two individuals. In contrast, Denson was only able to draw upon twenty persons to prosecute sixty Nazis at the Dachau trial alone.

Initially, the U.S. government tried to keep secret the commutations and reversals. But when they were revealed, the result was a public outcry and congressional hearings, which ultimately fell on deaf ears. Denson, who was understandably frustrated by the government's actions, resigned himself to a quiet, private life.

Not Much New History, But An Important Story Nonetheless

Though Justice at Dachau is rich in facts, a scholar on the topic of Nazi Germany - or, quite frankly, anyone who has even a basic knowledge of this time period - will not find anything particularly new in Greene's depiction of Denson's experiences. Similar tales of Holocaust horrors have been repeatedly told and retold in print and on film, particularly in the last twenty years.

In addition, the book is simplistic in its presentation. Were it not for its exceptionally grave and serious subject, its approach would mark it as simply light biographical reading. Fortunately, however, the human story it tells transcends this limitation.

The Repeating Of History Sparks Denson's Return

After he quietly returned home from Europe, Denson went on to represent the Atomic Energy Commission at the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Afterwards, he entered private law practice.

After decades of silence, in the 1990s, Denson finally started speaking publicly of his Nazi prosecution experiences, particularly motivated by the genocidal horrors committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Not long before his death he gave a lecture at Drew University. "I had it backwards," he said there. "The highlight of my career happened not at the end when it's supposed to, but at the beginning."

Denson died in 1998. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the creation of the International Criminal Court. Though certainly mired in controversy, the principle behind the Court is a product of the blood, sweat and tears of those such as Denson, who sought to restore humanity to a region that had none.

Greene notes that Denson's "last wish was that the story of the Dachau trials be told, not for his own aggrandizement but to educate future generations that no one is genetically exempt from inhuman behavior, and that the price for avoiding such tragedy again is a vigilant defense of human rights."

Mark S. Zaid is the Managing Partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Krieger & Zaid, PLLC. He specializes in national security, FOIA and First and Fifth Amendment litigation, and is the Executive Director of The James Madison Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to reduce secrecy and promote government accountability.

Zaid is also the co-editor of "Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws 2002," and of a forthcoming book to be published in 2004 by the University Press of Kansas on his grandfather, Chaplain David Max Eichhorn. Eichhorn led the first Jewish religious services at the Dachau concentration camp upon its liberation by American forces in 1945.