It was in the pretty Bavarian town of Dachau, on the site of an old munitions plant, that the National Socialists established in 1933 Germany’s first concentration camp for political prisoners swept up by the enveloping power of Hitler’s regime. Detainees were whipped until their skin was shredded; beaten into unconsciousness; even murdered in cold blood.
In his fascinating if not entirely convincing new book, “Hitler’s First Victims: The Quest for Justice,” writer and scholar Timothy Ryback delves into a series of killings in the spring of 1933 which, he suggests are emblematic of the methods and strategies that would find their full flowering in the Holocaust. His assertion begs more vexing questions than it answers. Still, his account, which includes biographical chapters on the victims as well as others on political violence in Germany, has all the makings of a legal thriller.
There is a heroic prosecutor risking his career as he jousts with the SS; brutish Nazi henchman; wrongs to be righted. Ryback chronicles the efforts of Josef Hartinger, a Munich deputy prosecutor, as he investigates the deaths of four Jewish detainees who were gunned down in the camp during a failed escape attempt, as well as several subsequent suspicious deaths at the camp.
Hartinger’s job was not made easier by the climate of menace in 1933.
The Nazis, once a renegade political movement, were in power. Hitler was chancellor and reigned in Bavaria. For example, Heinrich Himmler was both chief of the Bavarian state police and reichsführer of the SS, which administered Dachau. A jurisdictional struggle ensued as Hartinger tried to assert the rights of his office, only to be thwarted by SS interference and PR stunts.
When a New York Times reporter toured Dachau after the initial deaths, camp commandant Hilmar Wäckerle put on a charm show. The newspaper’s dispatch soft-peddled the killings of the Jewish detainees — identified as “Reds” in the headline — and parroted the SS version of events: that the victims had attempted to escape so were fair game.
Hartinger’s cautious — and skeptical — boss closed down the investigation into the deaths of the quartet. But through May, a disturbing pattern of violence continued at Dachau. Hartinger kept a record of each incident as he prepared further indictments, his cases buttressed with the conclusions of a rigorous, by-the-book medical examiner, Moritz Flamm. A laborer was shot at point blank range. A lawyer was also shot, again, the SS alleged, in an escape attempt. The death of Sebastian Nefzger, a 33-year old salesman, was reported as a suicide; but Flamm determined Nefzger had been strangled.
“[I]f Hartinger could implicate Wackerle and the senior SS staff,” Ryback writes, “he could perhaps demonstrate a pattern of abuse within the facility, which he felt could stand as a collective indictment of the concentration camp’s entire SS administration.’’ This is where Ryback’s argument gets tricky, if not unpersuasive. Hartinger was not a crusader — he was a professional doing his job. There is a certain amount of authorial projection onto these disturbing events at the beginning of the Nazi Reich. Historians have gone round and round on the precise origins of the Holocaust — whether it was the intention of Hitler from the start or more a function of contingency and the unfolding of war.
Nazism was undoubtedly brutal, but whether the killings documented here constitute something systematic remains an open question. Ryback’s book is a microhistory, but he argues we can extrapolate from these instances the roots of one of the most dreadful events of the 20th century: “The single shot executions . . . were repeated a millionfold with the mobile killing units that followed the path of the German armies across eastern Europe.”
Although the first four victims were Jews, the kinds of prisoners who entered Dachau were targeted — “second-and third-tier communists agitators, Social Democrats, a random professor or journalist or lawyer, and the occasional Jew” — for a political, not racial, animus. Whatever the problem’s of Ryback’s argument, his book still provokes and keeps you reading until the end.
Matthew Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.