missions in Guantanamo and elsewhere.
Dr. Tomaz Jardim: I’m not a lawyer, but I think the Mauthausen trial is
important because it sheds light on the
military commission trial system, which
is the system in place at Guantanamo
Bay. The criticism is often couched in
terms of contrasting the Guantanamo
hearings to Nuremberg. These critics
say that, after World War II, the United
States rose to the occasion with Nuremberg and illustrated that even perpetrators responsible for the most horrific
crimes would have received the benefits
of a full and fair trial and that was the
legacy of American justice in the wake
of World War II, and therefore Guantanamo is a gross deviation from an otherwise noble course.
If you understand the Mauthausen
trial and the Dachau trial system, you
realize that’s not true at all. In fact, Guantanamo Bay is very much in keeping with
how the United States has dealt with the
vast majority of war criminals in the past.
The Dachau trials were the common
response of the United States to Nazi
atrocities after World War II, and the
Nuremberg trials were very much an exception to the rule.
The legacy of the Mauthausen trial is
mixed. After the war, there were a number of major concentration camp trials
for Treblinka, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and
others. The verdicts in these cases are
often disappointing. People who were
clearly complicit in the murder of millions of people got off with 10- or 15-year
sentences, and thousands more were left
The trials at Dachau went a long way
in assuring that ordinary low-ranking
The Literary Lawyer
concentration camp personnel were prosecuted and punished. As an exercise in
expeditious punishment and judgment,
the trials were successful. Another victory of these trials was the voice they gave
to survivors, even though this wasn’t an
However, the protests of the defense
concerning the fairness of these trials
cannot be ignored. From a legal perspective and judging by standard criteria for
what constitutes a fair trial, you cannot
conclude that these [defendants] received
a fair trial as we understand the term.
There was no appellate procedure. The
prosecution often relied on hearsay evidence. There were confessions extracted
under seemingly dubious circumstances.
The judges clearly didn’t seem to deliberate very long on each of these cases. And
the list goes on.
These postwar trials were not established only to mete out punishment, but
also to have a pedagogical and instructive impact. The idea was that people
would understand — especially the German public — the real depravity and violence of Nazism, the dangers of ideological fanaticism, and through the fair trial
of those responsible for those crimes, the
German public would also understand
the benefits of liberal democracy and a
But news of the conduct of the
Dachau trial, such as allegations of
abuse of detainees during interrogation,
made it out to the press. As a result, the
defendants were seen as victims of an
unjust trial system, and it backfired on
the American attempt to use these trials
as a pedagogical tool.
We see parallels with the American
administration of justice at Guantanamo
Bay and Abu Ghraib. This is not only
about punishing people responsible for
atrocities; it’s also about trying to reach
out to the milieu from which they came.
clearly, abuses undercut that mission
and have the potential to turn otherwise
moderate people against this process.
Robin Lindley: What sparked your
interest in the Mauthausen trial? Did it
grow out of your previous research?
Dr. Tomaz Jardim: I don’t come
at this from the legal angle, but as a
historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Trials, by virtue of the fact that
the prosecution is required to prove the
guilt of the accused, therefore generate
huge amounts of documentary evidence.
Nobody had looked at the Mauthausen
trial before. I didn’t know much about the
Dachau trials, and I found that remarkable. I thought, why is it that Nuremberg
continues to be this paradigm through
which everybody understands postwar
justice when we have this other trial system where the vast majority of concentration camp perpetrators and Holocaust
crimes were addressed?
It was a triple interest for me: an interest in Mauthausen and the history of the
concentration camps and the Holocaust;
an interest in perpetrator motivation; and
an interest more broadly in this trial system that seemed relatively neglected by
researchers. I thought the trials would be
an interesting way of getting at the history of Mauthausen and the history of the
postwar trial program.
Robin Lindley: congratulations and
thank you for your insights on this little-known history. n wl
His articles — often interviews of
writers, scholars, and artists —
appear on the History News Network site ( hnn.us) and Crosscut.
com and in Real Change and in
other periodicals. He is a former
chair of the WSBA World Peace
through Law Section. A longer
version of this article appeared
on the History News Network site.
Left: Chief Mauthausen physician Dr. Eduard Kerbsbach awaiting execution on the gallows at
Landsberg Prison, May 1947 (NARA, USASC). Right: The 61 Mauthausen trial defendants stand
in the dock behind the defense team (USASC).