A “remarkable man” is honored, half a century after the fact, for his role in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.
By the end of 1948, William Denson “had prosecuted more Nazis than any other lawyer in the entire postwar period”: 177 prison guards and officers in all, every one of whom was found guilty, nearly a hundred of whom were sentenced to death. Yet his legal successes at proving the guilt of the butchers of Dachau, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald were overshadowed even at the time by the more widely publicized prosecutions of the German political leadership at Nuremburg. Greene (Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, 2000) revisits the prosecution, sharply noting how the overwhelming evidence of Nazi crimes converted Denson from a detached, scholarly student of the conflict who believed that “even the most decent human being, subjected to the right pressures, is capable of doing things he could never imagine himself doing” to a committed avenger of the wrongs the Nazis inflicted. To effect that legal retribution, Greene writes, Denson had the formidable task of proving that the Nazi regime was by definition a criminal enterprise; he also “made damn sure there was independent evidence corroborating what the defendant had done” rather than rely solely on the testimony of former concentration-camp inmates. Denson’s legal prowess was overcome, not by the defense—his German opponent, sounding much like Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremburg, was surely brilliant—but by the politics of the Cold War, by which the American government exerted pressure on the military to sweep aside Nazi crimes in the interest of lining West Germany squarely on its side against the Soviet Union. One result, Greene writes, was the early freeing of the so-called “bitch of Buchenwald,” a female guard whom Buckner characterized as “a sadistic pervert of monumental proportions, unmatched in history.” Buckner lost the argument against commutation and wound up as “the Army’s principal critic,” a stand that cost him much in those early days of McCarthyism.
A cogent, well-written contribution to legal and military history, and fitting tribute to a principled man.