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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Upcoming Exhibit: Horace Hansen, Dachau War Crimes Prosecutor

Horace R. Hansen (1910–1995) was a St. Paul native, graduate of the University of Minnesota and St. Paul College of Law, and an important prosecutor at the Dachau war crimes trials (1945–1947). The Law Library's spring digital exhibit will focus on Hansen's World War II career, and his role as a war crimes investigator and chief prosecutor in the war-crimes division of the U.S. Third Army.

The upcoming exhibit is based on a rich trove of archival material held at the Center. In 2005, the Law Library received a generous donation of three boxes of material related to Horace Hansen's WWII career from his daughter, Jean Hansen Doth. We are very grateful to Ms. Hansen Doth to be able to preserve and provide access to these materials. More recently, three additional boxes of archival material have been added to the collection. This month, Ms. Hansen Doth also kindly donated four rolls of microfilm containing the trial transcript for the main Dachau concentration camp trial, an important source for study. 

The exhibit will follow Hansen's career as a lieutenant and a captain in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps, to which he requested transfer in 1944 to assist in the prosecution of war crimes. Hansen was assigned to gather evidence of war crimes in the Netherlands and the American sector of occupied Germany, which included taking witness testimony from concentration camp inmates and photographs, and drawing up lists of perpetrators. He was then transferred to Dachau in the fall of 1945. Liberated at the end of April 1945, the concentration camp at Dachau was the first in operation under the Nazi regime and remained a symbol of the inhuman brutality and depravity of all concentration camps, many of which were modelled after it. Dachau would serve as the central trial location for war crimes committed in the American-occupied area and against Americans from 1945-47.

At Dachau, Hansen tried two cases involving American POWs, and oversaw others, including the main Dachau concentration camp trial. That trial charged 40 of the most notorious administrators, guards, and other staff with what were gross violations of the laws and customs of war. Rather than crimes against humanity, applied at Nuremberg, it was these more established charges that the prison staff and administrators at Dachau and the other camps faced. The team prosecuting the accused provided abundant evidence of mass murder (by firing squad), summary individual killing, extreme torture (including medical experimentation), abuse, starvation, intense labor, and abject neglect; and demonstrated that the operation of the camp showed a common design or purpose to kill the internees, who were political prisoners and those labelled subversive, Jews, enslaved laborers from Nazi-occupied territories, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and others.    

The exhibit describes the main details of the trial, supported by some of the documents and photographs that Hansen preserved in his files. It also includes documents important for studying the legal organization of the trials, and procedures used to identify and review Nazi officials for criminal charges. In fact, the trials' form and procedure was modified to provide more safeguards for the defendants than ordinarily would have been afforded in a military trial, based partly on procedures of the pre-war German courts. In the end, the 40 defendants at the Dachau camp trial were found guilty and 36 were initially sentenced to death. The trial helped to establish the validity of subsequent international criminal tribunals and set a new standard of accountability for crimes committed during wartime.

A final focus of the exhibit is Horace Hansen's book, Witness to Barbarism (2002), first drafted in the 1980s and published by his daughter Jean Hansen Doth after Hansen's passing in 1995. The book chronicles the author's journey to Dachau, the horrors of atrocity, and the main camp trial. In particular, the book project arose in response to Holocaust deniers in the 1980s, who rejected teaching the Holocaust in schools. Hansen hoped in part to understand the mentality of Hitler, and his fellow Nazi ideologues and supporters, who could have ordered and carried out the extermination of millions of Jews, Russians, Poles, and people across eastern Europe; as well as political and religious dissidents, homosexuals, Roma, and others. For that purpose, Hansen compiled hundreds of pages of conversations with Hitler's stenographers, or personal secretaries, at several periods, and included excerpts of these in his book. In the end, it is perhaps not easy to reach the full depths of the pathology. But Hansen did what he had set out to do: to bear witness to barbarism, and detail its legal remedies, in a direct and powerful way.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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