Hitler’s First Vic­tims: The Quest for Justice

Tim­o­thy W. Ryback
  • Review
By – February 5, 2015

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.

Relat­ed content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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