Dachau Trials

Alex Piorkowski

The proceedings of an American Military Tribunal against Alex Piorkowski, a former Commandant of the Dachau Concentration Camp, started in early January 1947 and Piorkowski was sentenced to death by hanging on January 17, 1947. This was a subsidiary case conducted after the main proceedings against Martin Gottfried Weiss, and 39 others on the Dachau concentration camp staff, which began in November 1945.

Alex Piorkowski after he was captured by the British in 1945

The photo above supposedly shows Alex Piorkowski, but there is a remarkable resemblance to another Dachau Commandant, Hans Lortiz, whose photo is shown at the Dachau Museum.

Like all the other Dachau accused, Piorkowski was convicted of participating in a "common design" to violate the Laws and Usages of War under the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1929. His alleged crimes included acts of brutality against concentration camp prisoners who were civilians, or members of the armed forces, in countries that were allied with America in World War II.

The Piorkowski case was unremarkable and would have been quickly swept into the dust bin of history, had it not been for the vigorous protest of his sentence by the chief defense council, Major Bigelow Boysen of the US Army. Boysen believed so strongly in Piorkowski's innocence that he even tried to bring the case before the Supreme Court of the United States, but it was rejected. After Boysen was discharged from the Army, he continued to fight for the release of Piorkowski, although he was no longer responsible for his defense.

Alex Bernhard Piorkowski was the Commandant at Dachau in 1941 and 1942, but during the winter of 1941 and 1942, he was away from the camp for extended periods due to illness.

According to Harold Marcuse in his book, "Legacies of Dachau," Heinrich Himmler "punished several of the sadistic and corrupt concentration camp commandants" including Piorkowski who was fired from his position as Commandant of Dachau, as of September 1, 1942 when Martin Gottfried Weiss replaced him. However, it was brought out during his trial that Piorkowski was transferred out of Dachau in June 1942.

According to Paul Berben in his book "Dachau 1933 - 1945, The Official History," Piorkowski was later kicked out of the Nazi party. Berben wrote that Piorkowski "rarely entered the prisoners' camp. He was not active, and left most things in the hands of his subordinates. They were given a free reign and could treat prisoners as they wished."

Heinz Höhne mentions in his book, "The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's SS," that Piorkowski was indicted for murder, but not convicted, by SS officer Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, who was an investigator and the judge of an SS special court.

As a defense witness for the SS, Morgen testified at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on 7 August 1946 that he had looked at 800 documents that pertained to the concentration camp cases of corruption and murder. His investigations began in 1943 at the Buchenwald camp and eventually resulted in 200 indictments including 5 concentration camp commandants who were arrested and put on trial. Dr. Morgen mentioned in his Nuremberg testimony that he was imprisoned in the bunker at the Dachau camp while the Military Tribunals were in progress and his cell mates included some of the people that he had arrested and investigated, which might have included Piorkowski.

Berben mentioned in his official history of Dachau that investigations of camp conditions at Dachau were conducted by Morgen between May and July of 1943. However, by that time, the Commandant of Dachau was Martin Weiss, the successor of Piorkowski.

The crimes which were charged against the accused at the Dachau trials were only those committed between January 1, 1942 and May 8, 1945 during the time that Germany was engaged in a war against America and its allies. This meant that any atrocities committed in the Dachau concentration camp before January 1, 1942 would not count. Piorkowski had only been present in the Dachau camp for approximately 6 months during this period. Under the "common design" concept of co-responsibility, Piorkowski was guilty of any violations of the Laws and Usages of War while he was the Commandant, regardless of his personal conduct toward the prisoners.

During the proceedings in the Piorkowski case, he was accused of working with an SS man named Sitte on the medical experiments at Dachau in 1942. Major Boysen checked the SS records and learned that Piorkowski and Sitte had not served at Dachau during the same time period.

As in all the Dachau cases, Piorkowski's trial was reviewed by the US Military after sentencing. The lawyer who reviewed the Piorkowski case was First Lieutenant Elmer Moody. At the end of his report, Moody wrote, regarding Piorkowski: "He participated in the common design to a very substantial degree. The evidence is sufficient to support the findings and sentence of the Court."

Major Boysen tried to get clemency for Piorkowski by pointing out letters that had been sent to the War Crimes Group by former inmates who claimed that Piorkowski had not committed any atrocities. These letters, which were probably sent at the suggestion of Boysen himself, were dismissed by the War Crimes Group because it didn't matter what Piorkowski did personally in the camp; he was the Commandant of the camp and as such was a participant in the common design to violate the Laws and Usages of War.

According to Joseph Halow's book, entitled "Innocent at Dachau," one of the letter writers was Lt. Col. R.H. Stevens, a Prisoner of War at Dachau. Stevens was a spy in the British Secret Intelligence Service in Holland, who was arrested as a conspirator in the failed plot to kill Hitler with a bomb placed in a Munich beer hall by Georg Elser, a former prisoner at Dachau who had recently been released. In his letter, Stevens described his treatment at Dachau: he was given a private room, not a cell. His room was furnished with a good bed, a desk and a chair. Piorkowski had brought him occasional gifts of flowers or wine or real coffee. He even permitted Stevens to swim in the SS officer's swimming pool when no one else was around.

Another letter writer, Dr. Konrad Stromenger, a Protestant religious dissident who spent seven years at Dachau, said that the inmates at Dachau were well-fed and rested. He maintained that Dachau, under Piorkowski's administration, had the best reputation of all the German camps.

As quoted in Halow's book "Innocent at Dachau," the review board, after reading the letters, wrote the following report:

It must be presumed that these statements are as favorable as anything they would have said in court. These two statements were accompanied by others from members of the clergy and from lay persons, all Germans. All of them were found to be without merit by a War Crimes Board of Review on the ground "they testify to individual acts of kindness to individuals, and in no way negative (sic) the atrocious treatment meted out to the vast majority of non-German nationals."

The prosecution's case against Piorkowski was based on the testimony of 34 paid witnesses who were former prisoners at Dachau. The defense produced a witness who testified that Piorkowski was bedridden at his home for two months during the winter of 1941-1942 during the time that prosecution witnesses testified that Piorkowski had beaten prisoners in the camp.

Another innovative idea used by the America prosecutors in the war crimes proceedings was that any findings and sentences in the main trials would become matters of judicial notice at subsequent subsidiary trials. In other words, any atrocities proven in a prior trial could be used as proof of guilt against future defendants since they were all being tried under the common design concept.

Major Boysen pointed out that the prosecution's allegation that 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet POWs had been executed at Dachau in the spring of 1942 had not been proved in the main trial of Dachau camp personnel, yet it was put into evidence in the Piorkowski trial, along with other atrocities that had become matters of judicial notice and did not have to be proved again. According to Joseph Halow, Major Boysen concluded that he was of the "definite opinion that no such massacre occurred at Dachau as is factually stated to have taken place there in Prosecution Exhibit 1." The Dachau Memorial Site currently maintains that 4,000 Soviet POWs were executed at Dachau.

The Soviet POWs at Dachau were allegedly shot for target practice at a firing range, but the POWs were given a more humane execution at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen where the POWs were shot through a slot in a measuring device.

After the main Dachau trial had been concluded, Major Boysen learned that the Dachau railroad station commander, a man named Rohrmuehler, had been a witness to the arrival of the trains bringing Soviet Prisoners of War to Dachau. Rohrmuehler said that no more than 500 Russians had ever passed through the Dachau camp, and that the claim that 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet POWs had been massacred at Dachau was absurd. The testimony about the killing of Soviet POWs had not been subjected to cross-examination in the courtroom, according to Joseph Halow.

Major Boysen also objected to the inclusion of events that had happened outside the time frame of the period covered by the charges against Piorkowski, which was from January 1, 1942 up to June, 1942 when he had been transferred.

The following quote is from Joseph Halow's book entitled Innocent at Dachau:

Boysen recalled that the prosecution had spoken with him before the trial, asking him if he would agree to the prosecution's including in the charges an incident which he indicated had taken place before the period January-June, 1942. This involved the notorious "Christmas tree whippings," which supposedly took place in Dachau in 1939, when Piorkowski, who was alleged to have been present, was camp custody leader. Boysen had refused, stating that if the prosecution were to include this incident in the dossiers, he would tell the court not to read the dossiers until it made a ruling on the matter.

Major Boysen's request was denied and the court members did read the dossier. Major Boysen said that this should not have been permitted because it colored the court's thinking.

In spite of all of Boysen's efforts to obtain clemency for Alex Piorkowski, he was hanged at Landsberg am Lech prison on October 22, 1948.

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This page was last updated on September 19, 2009