View the h-german Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in h-german's June 2006 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in h-german's June 2006 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the h-german home page.
H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-German@h-net.msu.edu (June 2006) Fern Overbey-Hilton. _The Dachau Defendants: Life Stories from Testimony and Documents of the War Crimes Prosecutions_. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 2004. vii + 208 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 0-7864-1768-4. Reviewed for H-German by Caroline Sharples, Department of History, University of Southampton Personalizing the Perpetrators The oft-repeated cry when reflecting upon the Holocaust is one of just how was this possible? What could possibly induce human beings to participate in the genocide of millions? What sort of people were behind the crimes of the Third Reich? The question of perpetrator mentality has already prompted much historical research. In his 1996 work, _Those Were The Days_ (the title of which stemmed from a caption inscribed in Kurt Franz's photograph album from his time as Commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp), Ernst Klee offered insights into this mindset through a compilation of letters, diaries and reports from perpetrators and bystanders. The material was notable for its frequently cool and detached depiction of atrocities. More recently, Robert Gellately published a collection of interviews with the Nuremberg defendants carried out at the time by the American psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn. These interviews focus on the personal lives of some of the biggest names of the Nazi regime, examining their initial attraction to National Socialism as well as their responses to the Holocaust. Goldensohn himself, it seems, deliberately set out to explore whether any peculiar character defects or unusual experiences might have rendered these figures more disposed to participating in such activities. He questioned them intensely about their childhood development, family relationships, sexual proclivities and whether they had known any sadistic types among their Nazi colleagues. The mid-1990s were characterized by the Browning-Goldhagen debate as to whether the criminals of the Third Reich should be viewed as "ordinary men" or "ordinary Germans." Both scholars examined the actions of Police Battalion 101--a unit largely made up of educated, middle class and middle aged men. In the debate, much was made of man's ability to commit crimes against his fellow man; discussion focused on the erosion of moral boundaries under Nazism and whether opportunities existed to defy orders within a dictatorship at war. Against this background comes Fern Overbey-Hilton's latest work. Between 1945 and 1947, the Americans staged a total of 489 war crimes trials at the former administration building of Dachau concentration camp. 1,700 individuals were prosecuted under these proceedings, which encompassed a range of atrocities committed in what was now the American occupation zone of the newly-divided Germany. These included crimes perpetrated in the concentration camps or during the death marches, as well as the mistreatment and murder of downed American airmen. Overbey-Hilton does not attempt to focus on the legal side of these events. No detailed discussion is made here of the trials themselves or the wider denazification process, and, indeed, many accounts of the war crimes trials conducted during this period are already available. Instead, Overbey-Hilton focuses on the nature of the people who came before the court, the sort of lives they lived prior to the rise of National Socialism and how they came to be in a position to engage in criminal activity during the Second World War. The accused themselves certainly came from all walks of life, ranging from major ideologically-committed Nazis, to well-educated professional types (teachers, doctors, engineers) or even "ordinary" villagers. There is, of course, no room in a slim paperback for the author to tackle all 489 trials. In selecting which cases to include, Overbey-Hilton claims to have opted for those which "lend themselves to an understanding of the trials" and those which "have something to teach us about World War II-era Germany and the tragedy that grew out of the German culture of that time" (p.7). The book itself is divided into seventeen chapters, the last of which aims to provide some form of concluding analysis under the rhetorical heading, "Will we ever learn?" and spans just over three pages. Indeed, the book as a whole is fairly concise. The majority of chapters focus on just one or two defendants at a time and, on average, run the course of nine pages. Here, then, we get the account Wilhelm Grill, who worked in the post office building of Mauthausen concentration camp while still in his early twenties; Paul Wolfram, who managed the infamous Mauthausen quarry; Dr. Erika Flocken, chief physician at Muehldorf, who selected the prisoners destined for Auschwitz; and Christian Mohr, a guard at Flossenburg accused of beating prisoners and taking an active role in their execution--going so far as to put the noose around victims' necks. Two chapters highlight the cases of Heinrich Buuck, Julius Straub and Peter Goldmann, who all killed prisoners on death marches during the final phases of the war; another two sections trace the behavior of a Czech and a Spanish national who served as Capos during the war and were consequently prosecuted for the mistreatment of other concentration camp inmates. A significant proportion of this book, meanwhile, pays attention to crimes committed against Americans during the war. Two successive chapters deal with German civilians who attacked downed US pilots; another focuses on the fate of American prisoners of war in Berga camp in Thuringia, and a fourth follows the story of Dr. Max Schmid, who removed the head from an American corpse, allegedly for scientific research. On occasion, however, _The Dachau Defendants_ moves away from a study of specific characters and provides instead a more generalized account of a set of criminal events. One chapter utilizes the testimony of a Buchenwald stretcher bearer, Marian Zgoda, to describe a special detail known as "Commando 99"--organized to execute the murder of prisoners who came to the camp's "clinic" for supposed medical examinations. This section of the book seems much more concerned with how this deception was played out than with offering a personal history of the chief perpetrators and thus fails to give any real insight into the psychological makeup of those involved. Another chapter, meanwhile, stands out for focusing more on the victim's family and his legal wrangles with the War Crimes Commission at Dachau than with the actual men accused of murdering American airman Daniel P. Loyd. The author bases her study exclusively on primary source material "with the exception of background information available in any textbook on modern European history" (p.6). She thus draws upon letters, petitions, military records, psychiatric reports, trial documents and other material which has found its way into the case files preserved in the American National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland. Testimonies from both survivors and former Nazis are reproduced at length, recalling in horrific detail the abuse and murder of countless concentration camp victims and ensuring the reality of the crimes is not lost amid defendants' posturing. The book is also illustrated with photographs of some of the accused, as well as images from the sites of the crimes. Overall, the book does a good job of individualizing and re-humanizing some of the criminal figures of the Third Reich and in explaining the factors that could compel someone to participate in such actions, although the latter are very much in keeping with the findings of existing historical literature and may not, as a result, be said to contribute anything really new for those familiar with the works of Browning et al. Typical are the extracts from the trial of Ludwig Stier, a former schoolteacher who was sentenced to death in June 1947 for his role as Company Commander of the guards of Wiener-Neudorf, an outcamp of Mauthausen. Stier is quoted as saying, "I did not leave the Party for the single reason because as an official employee I couldn't do so; otherwise I would have lost my position or at least I would have been prevented in making any progress in my career" (p. 48). Max Schmid similarly describes his joining the NSDAP while a university student as an act of self-interest rather than any ideological commitment, claiming, "anyone who didn't join would be kicked out of the students' house and wouldn't get a chance to get cheap meals there" (p. 22). Wilhelm Grill, meanwhile, claims he had no idea about the politics of the Waffen-SS but "understood my job to be a strictly military affair" (p. 59). Academic readers, however, are likely to feel frustrated by this work, not least because it fails to adhere to academic convention. The lack of any referencing system, be it through foot- or endnotes, is a cause for immense irritation, as is the failure to try and locate this study within any form of historiographical context. Archival sources are quoted extensively throughout the course of the book, but are never referenced. It is left to readers to turn to the appendix at the end of the book and match the defendant's name to the appropriate case number themselves. It remains unclear whether these cases then in turn span the course of several files within the National Archives; if so, no details are included as to which pieces of information were gleaned from which volume. Similarly, when historians Ian Kershaw and John Toland are quoted briefly, there is not even a pointer to the relevant page number in their works (pp. 60, 183). A list of "a few" (p. 9) of the consulted secondary works is provided in the one- and a-half page bibliography at the end of the book, but there is never any real attempt to engage critically with any existing historical narratives or debates. The structure also feels rather confused in places, leaping from one topic or defendant to another without any linking sentences in-between, making it sometimes hard to follow the author's train of thought. Some of these omissions may be explicable in terms of the fact that Overbey-Hilton hails from a more literary than academic background, being described clearly in the publishing blurbs as a playwright and journalist. Indeed, the language employed by the author is extremely accessible, if sometimes over-dramatic--one chapter is entitled, "Schoolteachers at Work in the Fields of Evil"--and despite the occasional apt phrase, the tone feels somewhat ill-considered. Referring, for example, to the fact that the rather slow-witted Heinrich Buuck had to repeat his school year several times over as "torture" seems wrong in the context of his killing several prisoners during the death march from Sonnenberg to the Sudetenland. Such factors, though, are unlikely to lessen this book's appeal to a wider, more popular audience or, indeed, to anyone who wants an easy-to-read introduction into the personalities behind some of the most horrific crimes of the Third Reich. Notes . Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Reiss, eds., _Those Were The Days: The Holocaust Through the Eyes of the Perpetrators and Bystanders_ (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991). . Leon Goldensohn, _The Nuremberg Interviews_, ed. Robert Gellately (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). . . Christopher Browning, _Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993); Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, _Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust_(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). For an overview of the subsequent debate, see Robert R. Shandley, _Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). . See, for example, Robert Siegel, _Im Interesse der Gerechtigkeit. Die Dachauer Kriegsverbrecherprozesse 1945-1948_ (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1992) and Frank M. Buscher, _The US War Crimes Trial Program in Germany 1946-1955_(New York: Greenwood Press, 1989). Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff: firstname.lastname@example.org.