The remarkable story of Josef Hartinger, the German prosecutor who risked everything to bring to justice the first killers of the Holocaust and whose efforts would play a key role in the Nuremberg tribunal.
Before Germany was engulfed by Nazi dictatorship, it was a constitutional republic. And just before Dachau Concentration Camp became a site of Nazi genocide, it was a state detention center for political prisoners, subject to police authority and due process. The camp began its irrevocable transformation from one to the other following the execution of four Jewish detainees in the spring of 1933. Timothy W. Ryback’s gripping and poignant historical narrative focuses on those first victims of the Holocaust and the investigation that followed, as Hartinger sought to expose these earliest cases of state-condoned atrocity.
In documenting the circumstances surrounding these first murders and Hartinger’s unrelenting pursuit of the SS perpetrators, Ryback indelibly evokes a society on the brink—one in which civil liberties are sacrificed to national security, in which citizens increasingly turn a blind eye to injustice, in which the bedrock of judicial accountability chillingly dissolves into the martial caprice of the Third Reich.
We see Hartinger, holding on to his unassailable sense of justice, doggedly resisting the rising dominance of Nazism. His efforts were only a temporary roadblock to the Nazis, but Ryback makes clear that Hartinger struck a lasting blow for justice. The forensic evidence and testimony gathered by Hartinger provided crucial evidence in the postwar trials.
Hitler’s First Victims exposes the chaos and fragility of the Nazis’ early grip on power and dramatically suggests how different history could have been had other Germans followed Hartinger’s example of personal courage in that time of collective human failure.
About Timothy W. Ryback
Timothy W. Ryback is the author of Hitler’s Private Library, which was named to the Washington Post Book World Best Nonfiction list in 2008, and The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau, a New York Times Notable Book. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He lives and works in Paris.
“Ryback…here examines an early but enormously significant episode in the evolution of the Nazi program of genocide….An important addition to Holocaust collections.”
“A chilling, lawyerly study with laserlike focus.”
“In recounting the compelling story of a prosecutor who sought to bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes at Dachau in the early days of the Nazis’ reign, Timothy Ryback’s book is all the more startling and important for bringing to life an episode so little known. It suggests what might have been if more Germans at the time had done their professional duty with equal moral compass. ”
—Raymond Bonner, author, Anatomy of Injustice
“This is an extraordinary, gripping, and edifying story told extraordinarily well by Timothy Ryback. I read it with a sense of amazement at the capacity of one good man to stand tall in the face of evil, and at the capacity of others to fall into unspeakable barbarism.”
—Richard Bernstein, author, Dictatorship of Virtue
“In this finely researched and deeply disturbing account of how Jews and Communists murdered in Dachau in 1933 became ‘Hitler’s first victims,’ Timothy W. Ryback finds a rare point of light in the courage of an obscure Bavarian prosecutor who tried to fight the escalating Nazi savagery with the rule of law. Thanks to his documented record of the atrocities taking place at Dachau, Ryback can now demonstrate how, within weeks of coming to power, the Nazis had already set off along the dark path that would lead to genocide.”
—Alan Riding, author, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.
“Timothy Ryback’s Hitler’s First Victims is a significant addition to the Holocaust canon. The story of the first four Jews murdered at Dachau, as well as the astonishing account of the German prosecutor (surely a precursor of Claus von Stauffenberg) who, in 1933, attempted to charge the vicious Nazi concentration camp commandant with murder, form the heart and soul of Ryback’s amazing book. The author’s research is prodigious and his accumulation of new details make the reader feel as if he is observing the first spreading of the Nazi plague through a microscope. This is history come alive in your hands.”
—Robert Littell, author, The Amateur
“In this horrifying and heartbreaking account of Dachau's early days, Timothy Ryback restores, to the murderers and the murdered alike, something crucially, necessarily missing from most Holocaust histories: their individuality. Then, by capturing, meticulously and understatedly, the retail barbarity of the place, he helps anticipate the wholesale annihilation to follow. And by recounting the striking heroism of two men—a local prosecutor and a medical examiner, simply trying to do their jobs—he allows us at least to ponder whether, had more such good Germans come forward, it all might just have been stopped.”
—David Margolick, author, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink
“Timothy W. Ryback’s gripping account of one man’s fight against Nazi atrocities holds important lessons for us. Experience demonstrates that the authors of genocide and crimes against humanity frequently test the waters before fully implementing their murderous plans. The Holocaust was no exception. Ryback shows how this genocidal act may have been averted had more people acted with vigilance and determination. Our challenge today is to act on Ryback’s historical insights before new rounds of mass atrocities unfold.”
—Kenneth Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch