With rumours swirling about the terrible things that went on behind the concentration camp walls, “Watch out or you will end up in Dachau” was a familiar phrase in Nazi Germany, urging people to fall in line with the regime or pay the consequences. In January 1933, a few weeks before Adolf Hitler seized power, plans were already in motion to repurpose an abandoned industrial facility in Dachau into a public work camp for the unemployed. But at that stage, it remained unclear whether residency in the facility was to be compulsory or voluntary. Two months later, on 20 March, the new chief of police, Heinrich Himmler, held a press conference announcing the opening of the Dachau Concentration Camp. By then, it had been decided that all workers would be imprisoned and guarded by armed men in brown storm trooper uniforms.
Using events in Dachau as its focus, Timothy Ryback’s valuable work turns the spotlight on the rapid erosion of state power in the early months of Nazi rule. The story begins on 13 April 1933, when deputy prosecutor Josef Hartinger was called to Dachau to investigate the circumstances in which four prisoners had been shot. The SS guards claimed that the prisoners had been shot because they had been attempting to escape, but the precise gunshot wounds in the back of the victims’ heads pointed to quite another version of events: an execution-style shooting at close quarters, rather than a series of potshots at a distance. When Hartinger began to delve further into the case, his efforts were stymied by his superior, who closed the investigation without further explanation.
Over the next few months, Hartinger was called back to Dachau on numerous occasions and, with the help of detailed autopsy findings, collected evidence showing that, contrary to the guards’ claims, prisoners were being systematically killed.
Deep lacerations to the flesh, which were evident on most corpses, pointed to regular use of torture in the camp, and alleged “suicides” were revealed as questionable when the depth and angle of cuts to the wrist were studied. Although Hartinger noticed that the camp’s victims were most often Jews or Communists, he deliberately did not include these facts in his reports. He hoped that by shying away from politics, the hard forensic evidence he had gathered would speak for itself.
Not only did the SS guards close ranks, sticking to an agreed version of events, but Hartinger’s superior also disregarded evidence in order to affirm SS accounts. Understandably, surviving inmates were all too often afraid to speak. Viewed through the perspective of Hartinger, a Roman Catholic lawyer who disliked the Nazi Party intensely, Hitler’s First Victims effectively shows how the normal structures and processes of the German legal system quickly crumbled as the new Nazi laws trumped the state laws, leaving the established judiciary in tatters.
Men such as Hartiger tried to take a business-as-usual approach, keeping faith that the law courts would prosecute deliberate murder by SS men when faced with incontrovertible evidence, and they realised only gradually that the rules of the game had fundamentally changed. It was only after the war that the evidence Hartinger had collected was discovered by Allied officers in a locked desk drawer. And although many of the perpetrators were dead, a trial in 1952 did hand down life sentences to some of the guards who had used brutality in Dachau unchecked.
The creeping power of the SS over state legal structures is widely known by scholars in the field on an intellectual level, but Ryback’s vivid narrative of an ordinary German lawyer’s experience makes this feel much more immediate, bringing home the terrible realities of early Nazification.
Hitler’s First Victims and One Man’s Race for Justice
By Timothy W. Ryback
Bodley Head, 288pp, £16.99 and £9.98
ISBN 97818479231 and 9781473520172 (e-book)
Published 5 February 2015