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The Dachau Trials: Background & Overview

(1945 - 1948)

A series of military trials of concentration camp guards, medical personnel, members of S.S. units, and various German civilians indicted for war crimes, were conducted by the United States Army between November 1945 and December 1947 at the site of the former concentration camp at Dachau. The camp was chosen because it was one of the subjects of the Army’s prosecution and because its facilities were adequate to accommodate the trial participants.

The series of 465 trials prosecuted four separate categories of cases: (1) main (“parent”) concentration camp offenses; (2) subsidiary (“subcamp”) concentration camp offenses; (3) atrocities committed on downed fliers, typically by German civilians; and (4) a catchall that included the Malmedy massacre of U.S. troops and the murders of eastern European workers at the Hadamar mental hospital. The trials of concentration camp crimes included the main camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, Nordhausen, and Mühldorf, as well as the sprawling network of subsidiary camps attached to each.

Juries were not impaneled for these trials; rather, a seven-man commission and a “law member,” the latter a senior officer with extensive experience in military law, were the fact finders. In each of the trials prosecuted at Dachau, only offenses against Allied nationals were tried, leaving to the German court system the prosecution of crimes committed by Germans on other Germans. By the time the military court had permanently adjourned in December 1947, it had tried 1,200 defendants for war crimes committed during World War II, achieving a conviction rate of approximately 73%.

Unlike the indictment of the 23 major war criminals by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, the U.S. Army’s charges against German defendants adhered to a single model based on “violation of the Laws and Usages of War.” Numerous charges could be alleged against individual defendants under this heading. In the concentration camp cases, for example, defendants were accused of “wrongfully” participating in a “common plan” to commit war crimes through beatings, assaults, killings, tortures, starvations, abuses, cruelties and mistreatment of camp prisoners. In the parent Dachau case, the indictment refers to the victims as either “civilian nationals of nations then at war with the then German Reich” or as “members of the armed forces of nations then at war with the then German Reich,” whose identities were “unknown” but numbered in the “many thousands.” This language from the Dachau charge sheet recurs in other concentration camp cases with striking frequency, indicating that many of the victims were anonymous and their numbers legion.

Sources: Dachau Trials