Greene’s book chronicles the ‘Trials of an American Prosecutor’
By Linda Laderman
Seventy years ago, William Densen, a young Harvard trained lawyer, was wrapping up his work as the Army’s chief war crimes prosecutor of the Dachau Trials.
Not nearly as well known as the Nuremberg tribunal, the Dachau trials prosecuted Nazis who claimed they were not responsible for the war crimes they committed at the Dachau concentration camp because they were only following “superior orders,” while the Nuremberg trials focused on 22 high ranking Nazis who were instrumental in the planning and implementation of the Holocaust.
Now, a book chronicling Densen’s journey into the aftermath of Dachau’s Nazi atrocities, “Justice at Dachau: The Trials of an American Prosecutor,” by Joshua Greene, has been released in paperback by the American Bar Association.
“Justice at Dachau” follows the 32-year-old Densen as he builds his case and conducts the prosecution of the Nazi war criminals who terrorized and murdered the prisoners of Dachau, the first death camp established by the Third Reich.
“There is so much reporting on the Nuremberg trials that the Dachau trials didn’t quite get the attention they deserved,” said Jonathan Malysiak, director of Ankerwycke and Flagship ABA Publishing. “I read it and found it to be very profound. It read like fiction but it’s not.”
The ABA selected the book, in part, to help mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the trials and because the story was too compelling to ignore, said Malysiak.
“We chose the book because it is a very powerful narrative of a young green lawyer who is going face-to-face with the Nazi behemoth. It is the story of David versus Goliath,” Malysiak said. “It’s so important for these kinds of stories to be brought to public attention because as more survivors leave us we have a moral responsibility to keep that legacy alive for future generations.”
Yet, “Justice at Dachau” is a story that nearly didn’t get written.
Greene wasn’t immediately sold on the idea when he received the initial phone call from Huschi Densen, William Densen’s widow, asking him to review her late husband’s files from the Dachau trials.
As it turned out. Greene couldn’t disregard the panoply of feelings the phone call evoked and eventually agreed to an initial meeting with Huschi Densen.
“Huschi Densen’s phone call in 2000 put me in a bit of depression. After my film ‘Witness: Voices from the Holocaust’ aired on PBS, survivors called regularly asking if I would tell their story as well. ‘Witness’ required screening more than 500 hours of video from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. That was enough, I didn’t want to do more, and I jumped to the conclusion that Huschi was another such call from someone looking to tell her story,” Greene said.
As the conversation proceeded, Greene had a change of heart, one that led him to visit the then 77-year-old Huschi, who would eventually share boxes of files chronicling Bill Densen’s work on the trials that took a back seat to the global attention bestowed on the Nuremberg Trials.
“Her voice was clear, that of an older person, but it had strength and intelligence. So I was intrigued and agreed to meet her,” Greene said of Huschi Densen, who died in 2006, eight years after the death of her husband.
Their first meeting was at Bill Densen’s law firm, Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein, Wolf & Schlissel in Mineola, N.Y., where Densen worked for many years before any of his colleagues discovered the pivotal role he played in the Dachau trials.
“A few weeks later, her husband’s law partners invited me to meet Huschi at their offices. It was a surprise to find photos and letters of appreciation for Bill Densen’s war crime services decorating their office walls,” Greene recalled. “Later, she showed me boxes and boxes of papers Bill Densen had collected. I thought ‘My God, this is incredible.’”
Not an attorney himself, Greene finds Densen’s unbending belief in the rule of law and subsequently, due process, to be the unimpeachable principle that sustained the war crimes prosecutor throughout the trials.
“Densen was a due process purest. He fought for due process so no one could look back at the trials and dismiss the court as a kangaroo court,” Greene said. “We are once again confronting the abrogation of due process.
Whenever we’ve done this, suspending the law to defend the law, we’ve lived to regret it.”
Ensuring that the Dachau defendants had due process was not problematic for Densen, Greene said, adding that Densen’s initial difficulties stemmed from the shock of learning that the atrocities he’d heard about before his arrival at Dachau were true.
“The greatest hurdle for him was overcoming his own sense of disbelief at what the evidence showed,” Greene said. “Germany was the home of classical music and philosophy, not barbarity.”
From 1948-53, nearly 2,000 convicted Nazi war criminals were released as an incentive to win postwar Germany’s support against Soviet Russia. As a result, most of the war criminals who Densen had prosecuted were set free “to die at home in their bed,” Greene said.
“Densen found out about their release by reading about it in the newspaper. It was a cover-up by the army,” Greene said. “They didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him.”
Granting freedom to those who commit heinous crimes for the sake of politics calls the rule of law into question and creates uncertainties that aren’t easily resolved, Greene said.
“That raises the question: What is the law? Is it a standard by which the behavior of civilized nations can be judged, or is it a pliable convenience to be abrogated for political goals?” Greene asked. “There may be good reasons to turn from retributive justice – in particular on humanitarian grounds – but political expediency is not one of them.”
A former educator in religion and philosophy at Hofstra University, Greene frequently speaks to groups about the Holocaust where he is often asked about the significance it has today.
“We’re at a turning point. The government has announced plans for aggressive action against its enemies, and that carries the risk of suspending constitutional guarantees as happened after 9/11,” said Greene, whose work has been translated in a dozen languages. “Every time we cross that line, we wear away at the foundation of democracy. This is a good time to study the repercussions of the breaches of constitutional safeguards that occurred in the aftermath of the Dachau war crimes trials.”
Describing “Justice at Dachau,” as the “hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Greene said he’s pleased that the ABA’s release of his book, first published in a hardcover edition in 2003, has been well received.
The feedback from the ABA membership has been “very powerful,” Malysiak said.
“The response has been very positive,” Malysiak indicated. “It’s available on our website now and will be released to the general public in April.”