The forgotten story of a conscientious lawyer in Nazi Germany (Book Review)

Title: Hitler’s First Victims – And One Man’s Race for Justice; Author: Timothy W. Ryback; Publisher: Vintage/Random House Penguin; Pages: 288; Price: Rs.499

Four men, deemed the regime’s adversaries and held in a preventive detention camp, are killed “while trying to escape” and soon there are more such deaths. A prosecutor discovers all are deliberate murders but is not allowed to pursue the case. A Graham Greene or John Le Carre story? It really happened and was a pointer to the Nazis’ genocidal aims – though one man did his best to stop it then.

Joseph Hartinger, a deputy prosecutor in Munich in the early 1930s, is not a familiar name and doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry in English, though his story is a cautionary one of how regimes and ideologies can turn viciously murderous against anyone deemed undesirable according to their concepts but even one conscientious man can make a difference – eventually.

It is his – and some unfortunate men – whose unsettling but gripping story that author and academician Ryback brings out in his latest book, which is not only a salutary lesson about where political extremism can lead to but also with a strong resonance to contemporary conditions .

Hartinger was tasked to investigate, as per law, the killing of four prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp (a fairly innocuous term then) outside the city – the first set up by the Adolf Hitler regime, two months after coming to power in January 1933, to accommodate the “criminal sub-stratum” – which, in their view, included Jews, communists, and political opponents. All were held without being charged, thus forestalling any legal challenge to their incarceration.

Security was soon transferred from the regular police to the Schutz Staffeln (SS), and brutality then began in earnest – relentless beating of inmates and finally murder of four of them in April itself. The killing made headlines including in the international press but almost all believed the official version and the victims’ categorisation as communist agitators obscured the fact that all happened to be Jews.

The investigators determined it was murder but when Hartinger decided to press charges, he was forestalled by his superior.

As more killings – of Jews, communists, former policemen who had infiltrated the Nazi movement and even those against some regime figure bore a grudge – continued to occur regularly and were termed suicides or escape attempts, Hartinger and an equally courageous pathologist (Dr. Moritz Flamm), continued to turn up to probe and assiduously built a tight case against the camp guards, officials and the commandant.

This not only entailed a grave risk not only professional, but personal too. At one visit, a camp guard cautioned Hartinger: “We will shoot you” and he responded: “Then you’ll have to shoot me. I’m coming in.”

But when the time came to commit the case for trial, a superior tipped higher-ups and proceedings were stalled and soon quashed. While his efforts led to some changes and a brief period of peace, things not only returned to the way they were but soon worsened – as history tells us.

And Hartinger’s work did eventually accomplish something – at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

Ryback’s story is dark but meticulous, and not confined to the prosecutor’s investigation but the stories of each victim and his official murderer, but also the political background and happenings and citing a compelling study into political violence in post-World War I Germany which has several lessons for all.

In the landmark “Four Years of Political Violence” (1922), which sought to find reason for the terrors and atrocities in a country of “poets and thinkers”, Professor Emil Gumbel concluded that you couldn’t rely on a constitution or open elections or a free press as a gauge or guarantee for a stable and functioning democracy but also depended on “implementation of regulations, the adherence to laws, the actions of the police, the spirit of the administration and most of all, the attitude of the state”.

This is a lesson that stands the test of time – and we especially need to observe.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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