BY PANTEA YASHAR
Joshua M. Greene’s Justice At Dachau: The Trials of An American Prosecutor offers a poignant account of the largest yet least known series of Nazi trials in history. The book chronicles the story of the Dachau trials through their chief prosecutor, William Denson, an American Harvard Law School graduate whose role in the proceedings was introduced to Greene one year after his death in 1998.
Denson is a soft-spoken “Southern gentleman” who tried and won hundreds of civil suits by the age of 32. His life took a dramatic turn in 1945 when he was taken from his teaching position at West Point, and thrown into a courthouse on the grounds of Dachau.
Denson’s task was to prosecute individual Nazi guards, officers and doctors who personally took part in the executions, torture and atrocities in the camps. His aim was to prove individual responsibility in violation of the rules of war, but how he explicitly chose to do this would set powerful precedents for subsequent trials and show the effectiveness of military tribunals and international laws.
Greene states as one of his main goal’s in writing this book to show “…how good people c[ould] achieve greatness by their conduct.” William Denson more than fulfills this goal by embracing his position of chief prosecutor, and risking his life to provide murderers with due process of law. After three years of perennial dedication and hard work, Denson ultimately attains convictions for all 177 of his accused under the novel theory of a “common design.”
The narrative includes a number of colorful characters including Dr. Klaus Schilling (who murdered hundreds of prisoners in his ostensible research into a cure for malaria), Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen (an American psychologist who sets himself up as a privileged prisoner inside a concentration camp and killed prisoners who refused to pay him ransom), and the notorious Ilse Koch (a women known for beating prisoners to death and collecting their tattooed skins). Greene chronicles Koch’s story as Denson’s final trial in Dachau and ultimately as one of the most tragic.
A room filled with students from throughout Harvard and community residents who came to hear his comments, reactions and impetus for writing the book greeted Greene Tuesday night. Greene opened the discussion with the profound question: “What is justice?” This proved to be a particularly interesting and relevant inquiry given the current political situation. In the wake of September 11th, events in Guantanamo Bay and our dealings with Iraq, Greene’s account of what took place almost sixty years ago in the Holocaust seems to shed perspective on how we might think to confront issues that face us today.
The Jewish Law Students’ Association (JLSA) sponsored this event in an effort to remind local residents and students of past tragedies. Kira Rosen, a 3L and the President of JLSA comments, “With the Survivor generation getting older and passing on, I believe there is an increasing need to educate our generation about the atrocities of the Holocaust.”
As a delightful surprise to everyone who was present, William Denson’s daughter showed up for the discussion and spoke briefly of her experiences growing up in the Denson household. “For a long time, my father just didn’t really talk about it…it was an odd thing because my mother is German.”
Greene closed with a powerful message to the future lawyers in the room. He expressed that although we would not have to deal with the exact ethical and legal dilemmas that struck Denson, as judicial advocates, we would inevitably be put in a position of fire that required making tough choices. He emphasized that when this situation arose, to retain “integrity” as the most important element in whatever we chose to do.