The Hero Who Tried To Stop The Nazis Before They Started

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, April 4, 2015
Dachau, Konzentrationslager
“A little integrity is better than any career.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

In A Nutshell

In 1933, a prosecutor named Josef Hartinger was called to Dachau to investigate a few suspicious deaths. It was his opinion that the bullet-ridden bodies had clearly been executed, and he filed official charges against the SS commanders in charge of the camp. Charges piled up and piled up, until they were ultimately squashed by Hitler. It wasn’t for nothing, though; when the charges were discovered by the Allied forces, they were used at the Nuremberg Trials to show just how far back the Nazi’s plans for genocide went.

Note: The photo above is of a group of prisoners at Dachau being pardoned in 1933.

The Whole Bushel

On April 13, 1933, Munich prosecutor Josef Hartinger was called to Dachau to oversee what the camp’s officials undoubtedly thought was going to be a minor investigation, perhaps for the sake of paperwork. Three men had been shot and killed for attempting to flee the camp, they said, while another had been gravely wounded—he wouldn’t survive. The men were Arthur Kahn, Ernst Goldmann, Rudolf Benario, and Erwin Kahn, and their bodies had been riddled with bullets.

It didn’t quite hide the fact that they had been shot execution style. There was more that Hartinger found suspicious about the deaths: They were all outspoken opponents of the then-fledgling Nazi regime, and they were all Jewish. According to the man who met the investigators at the camp, SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Hilmar Wackerle, the first three had been trying to run, while the other, unfortunately, had just gotten in the way.

The whole thing was quite obviously not true, and it was all coming at something of a turning point for the Germans. Hitler had been the country’s chancellor for 10 weeks at this point, and he was already taking away huge pieces of the people’s civil rights after an attack targeting the Reichstag. The Nazi party was slowly gaining popularity, and he had a number of supporters in increasingly high places.

So, Hartinger did what any incredibly, insanely brave person would have done: He filed murder charges against the camp’s leaders.

While the paperwork was being filed, reviewed, and passed along through all the government channels, suspicious deaths kept happening at the camp. Hartinger kept adding those deaths to the list of charges. And he knew exactly what he was getting into. The World War I veteran was in his late thirties, with a wife and young son at home. After he had made his decisions, he told his wife he had signed his own death warrant.

At first, one of the road blocks in Hartinger’s way was his own superior, who said that not even the Nazis would go as far as allowing the repeated killings of Jewish prisoners. Deaths kept piling up, though, and the charges went through. If nothing else, Hartinger was hoping that he would be able to reveal the true backbone of the Nazi party, derailing their growing popularity and turning the majority of the people back to other political parties.

He wanted others to hear the charges, too—others like the American people that Hitler was so enamored with, and the Vatican, whose support he wanted.

Eventually, the chief of the Bavarian police, Heinrich Himmler, was ordered by the state governor to stop the killings. Himmler turned, instead, to Hitler. Suddenly, the charges disappeared, the killing continued, and Hartinger was transferred to another area.

Hartinger survived the war, although he never allowed his story to be told. He was 91 years old when he died, not long after writing his memoirs, only fairly recently discovered. His work wasn’t entirely forgotten, though, and it definitely wasn’t for nothing.

When the Allies took over the war offices of the Axis powers, they found the original charges that Hartinger had filed, locked away in a cabinet in the Bavarian Ministry of Justice. They were among the first papers presented at the Nuremberg Trials, and set the stage for just how long the atrocities carried out by the Nazis had been going on.

Hartinger had gotten his justice.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96361 / CC-BY-SA
The Wall Street Journal: First Deaths at Dachau
The American Jewish World: Indicting the Nazi SS—in 1933
NY Times: The First Killings of the Holocaust