Timothy Ryback, the author of Hitler’s Private Library and The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau, has written an indispensable account of Dachau’s first months under SS supervision. Founded in early 1933, the camp was placed in the hands of the SS in March 20. What followed under the camps commandant, Hilmar Wackerle, was murder, whippings, and other cruel methods of torture against its incarcerated political enemies and Jews. The title of the book is drawn from the cold-blooded murder of its first four Jewish victims: Rudolf Benario, age 24, Ernst Goldmann, age 24, Arthur Kahn, age 24, and Erwin Kahn, age, 32. Although the Nazi camp officials claimed that the four were shot attempting to escape, suspicions about the case (as well as others) did not escape the notice of the Munich II prosecutor, Joseph Hartinger, and Moritz Flamm, the forensic court medical examiner.
Hartinger and Flamm were true heroes. As the Nazis gained ever more power within Germany, Hitler was still thwarted by the presence of President von Hindenburg who valued law and order. Under these circumstances both men insisted on investigating the deaths of all four Jews, as well as others who were murdered arbitrarily in Dachau by the camp guards. Given the present danger of an ever more volatile SA engaging in daily violence, Hartinger and Flamm placed their careers as well as their lives at risk in the service of the rule of law. Despite the homicidal impulses of the Hitler chancellorship, it is remarkable that the prosecutor was able to have the murderers punished, and Wackerle removed from his post only to be replaced by Theodore Eicke, who in time was even a more brutal commandant than his predecessor.
Citing the warning of a Weimar Republic jurist, Emil Gumpel, “that a society that condones individual homicide risks condoning mass murder,” Ryback argues, “that the trail of blood that began in Dachau led ultimately and seemingly inexorably to Auschwitz.” He concludes that if Germany had found more individuals like Hartinger and Flamm, perhaps history could have been set on a different, less horrific path.
- Holocaust reading list on Hitler and the Third Reich
- The Society of Terror: Inside the Dachau and Buchenwald Concentration Camps by Paul M. Neurath
- The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau by Alex Kershaw