A Witness to Barbarism: New Digital Exhibit Released by the Law Library
Captain Horace R. Hansen (1910–1995), a St. Paul native who completed his undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota, was a lead prosecutor at the Dachau war crimes trials held in the wake of the Second World War. In 1945, Hansen served as a war crimes investigator in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps as Allied forces swept into Germany. In October of that year, he was assigned to prepare concentration camp cases for trial before an American military tribunal at Dachau, serving as chief prosecutor in the War Crimes Division of the U.S. Third Army.
In 2005, the University of Minnesota Law Library received a generous donation of material related to Hansen's WWII career from his daughter, Jean Hansen Doth. In late 2019, three additional boxes of archival files were added to the library’s collection, and more recently Hansen Doth donated four rolls of microfilm containing the trial transcript of the main Dachau concentration camp trial, United States v. Martin Gottfried Weiss, et al. This spring, the Law Library released a new digital exhibit, “A Witness to Barbarism: Horace R. Hansen and the Dachau War Crimes Trials,” focusing on Hansen's important World War II career. The new digital exhibit features a narrative of Hansen's service and includes important documents and photographs from his archive, not least of which is the transcript of the main camp trial. The exhibit is based on Hansen Doth’s donations, held in the Law Library’s Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center.
In the closing stages of World War II, Hansen, like other investigators, was empowered by the U.S. Army to gather evidence of war crimes. In 1945, he took witness testimony from concentration camp victims, documented atrocities, and compiled lists of perpetrators in the Netherlands and in the American sector of occupied Germany. Hansen was eventually transferred to Dachau, 10 miles outside of Munich. Liberated at the end of April, the notorious concentration camp at Dachau was the first operated under the Nazi regime and has remained a symbol of the brutality and inhuman depravity of the concentration camp system. At Dachau, Hansen tried two cases involving American prisoners of war, and prepared evidence for the Dachau, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen trials.
The Law Library’s exhibit details the main Dachau camp trial, in which 40 of the camp’s administrators and staff were found guilty of gross violations of the laws and customs of war. The many subsequent trials held at Dachau also adopted the charges, rooted in treaty obligations and customary international law. Unlike the Nuremberg trials, where the charge of crimes against humanity sought liability for any systematic civilian abuse, the Dachau trials formally contemplated crimes against Allied civilians and POWs. However, the trial teams produced overwhelming evidence of mass murder, extreme torture (including medical experimentation), slave labor, starvation, abuse, and abject neglect; they further showed that the operation of the camp reflected a common design to exterminate the internees, who were Jewish inmates, political prisoners, forced laborers from German-occupied territories, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and others. Among the defendants, who had been afforded due process protections, 36 were initially sentenced to death. Supported in part by Hansen’s work, the historic Dachau camp trial helped to establish the validity of subsequent international criminal tribunals and set a new standard of accountability for crimes committed during wartime.
The digital exhibit also features a narrative about the genesis of Horace Hansen's book, Witness to Barbarism (2002), published by his daughter Jean Hansen Doth after Hansen passed away in 1995. The book chronicles Hansen’s journey to Dachau, the horrors of the Nazi regime, and the main Dachau camp trial. Notably, the book was shaped partly as a response to local Holocaust deniers in the 1980s, who rejected teaching the Holocaust in Minnesota public schools. This final work of Hansen’s career bears witness to barbarism and details its legal remedies in a direct and powerful way.
For more information about the digital exhibit, please contact Ryan Greenwood (firstname.lastname@example.org; 612-625-7323). To view the exhibit, please see:
By Ryan Greenwood, Law Library faculty member and curator of rare books and special collections