Review: Hitler's First Victims

Trickle before the flood


By Timothy W Ryback
The Bodley Head, £16.99

A few weeks after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg in January 1933, the first Nazi concentration camp was set up in a derelict munitions factory at Dachau, just north of Munich. On March 22, the first detainees arrived. On April 12 four young prisoners were shot dead by guards, allegedly while trying to escape. They were all Jewish and had the melancholy distinction of being the first victims of the Nazi regime.

In the first months of the regime, the civil justice system was still functioning, so the next day the region's deputy prosecutor, Josef Hartinger, a 39-year-old conservative Roman Catholic and dedicated civil servant, went to Dachau to investigate the deaths.

He was accompanied by Dr Moritz Flamm, the regional medical examiner responsible for conducting autopsies in criminal investigations, an equally unbending public servant. They swiftly realised that the guards' story was nonsense: three of the men had been shot in the back of the neck, the fourth in the face. He survived for a while but died in hospital, not before he had given his own account of the murders.

Hartinger recommended that Dachau's commandant, SS captain Hilmar Wäckerle, and the guards responsible, be prosecuted for murder. His superior, chief prosecutor Karl Wintersberger, disagreed, and there the matter rested, to Hartinger's disgust. But not for long,: over the next few weeks, many more such deaths at Dachau - so-called escapes, suicides, or guards "acting in self-defence"- were reported to Hartinger's office. He and Flamm duly investigated most of them but, while being certain the prisoners had been murdered on Wäckerle's orders, they could not get beyond the guards' bland denials.

Hartinger courageously persisted, however, obtaining evidence so overwhelming that he filed arrest warrants against "unknown perpetrators" for murder - and against Wäckerle as well as the camp doctor and the administrator, for aiding and abetting. By then, he knew he was risking his own life to do so. So alarmed was Himmler, whose brainchild Dachau was, that he alerted Hitler, who ordered the warrants to be shelved.

As Timothy Ryback shows in this short and clear account of Hartinger's selfless quest for justice, the Nazis' main concern at that point was to buy time with foreign powers, particularly the United States, while they tried to reshape their near-bankrupt country. A public trial about the horrors going on at Dachau could have had ruinous consequences for Hitler when he was still relatively weak.

Hartinger's original indictments survived the war (as did Hartinger) and played a key role at the Nuremberg trials where - it being demonstrated that the SS had embarked on mass murder from the moment Hitler came to power - his first victims finally received a sort of justice.

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