Post-War Investigation: Background
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all factual statements and quotations were pulled from the War Crimes Trial file at the National Archives, Textual Division.
The Berga G.I.s were liberated in two separate groups, the first by the 90th Infantry Division on April 20, 1945 and the second by the 11th Armored Division on April 23, 1945.
On May 31, 1945 War Crimes Investigation Team 6822 was sent to Berga to investigate the atrocities that took place there. Company commander Ludwig Merz was captured on April 23, 1945 and remained in custody until his trial. The WCIT arrested Berga Commandant Erwin Metz June 19, 1945.
It is unclear from the trial documents why it took over a year for these two men to be brought to trial at Dachau.
From May to June of 1945, the War Crimes investigators conducted interviews with numerous G.I.s about their experiences at Berga. These interviews are cited in the war crimes trial testimony, though none of these men was brought to Dachau to testify. We do have copies of many of these statements. Many were taken at Camp Lucky Strike in France and they give descriptive accounts of the conditions at Berga, the killing of Goldstein, the death march, etc. The War Crimes investigators also questioned many other witnesses, including the doctor who treated the sick G.I.s, two of the guards at the American camp and the mayor of a neighboring town who briefly took custody of Morton Goldstein after his escape and recapture.
In April of 1946, with no trial seemingly in the near future, Charles Vogel, father of Bernard -- a Berga victim -- contacted the War Crimes Office to inquire about when the perpetrators would be brought to trial.
Vogel had been gathering statements from survivors (some 70 total) and pressured the War Crimes Office to speed up its own investigation. He was outraged that, nearly a year after the men were liberated, no trial had been scheduled.
The War Crimes Office responded that investigators had not yet identified or apprehended all of the men responsible for the crimes against the Berga G.I.s. The Director of the Civil Affairs Division solicited Vogel's assistance in tracking down witnesses who may be able to assist the investigation. Vogel ultimately (albeit reluctantly) forwarded copies of his materials to the War Crimes Department. This transfer of files took place approximately July 1946.
War Crimes Trial, Dachau, Germany
The trial for Erwin Metz and Ludwig Merz opened in September 1946. The two were charged as follows:
Charge #1: Violation of the Laws of War
Particulars: In that Erwin Metz, a German national, did, at or near Berga, Germany, on our about 19 March 1945, willfully, deliberately and wrongfully kill an unknown member of the United States Army, who was then a surrendered and unarmed prisoner of war, in the custody of the then German Reich, by shooting him with a gun.
Charge #2: Violation of the Laws of War
Particulars: In that Erwin Metz, a German national, did, at or near Berga, Germany, between February 1945 and 23 April 1945, wrongfully commit assaults upon unknown members of the United States Army, then unarmed surrendered prisoners of war, in the custody of the then German Reich, by beating them about the face and body.
Charge #3: Violation of the Laws of War
Particulars: In that Erwin Metz and Ludwig Merz, German nationals, did, at or near Berga, Germany, between February 1945 and 23 April 1945, willfully, deliberately and wrongfully encourage, aid, abet and participate in mistreating unknown members of the United States Army, then unarmed surrendered prisoners of war under their charge and in their custody on behalf of the then German Reich, by failing to provide adequate food, adequate medical care and adequate clothing; said failure resulting in the death of several unknown members of the United States Army.
The trial lasted about six weeks, during which both men took the stand in their own defense. I think it is important to note that the prosecution did not call any GI witnesses, choosing instead to rely on the statements they had gathered throughout the course of their investigation.
The defense tried to depict the two accused as devoted German guards who simply were following orders. As Company Commander, Merz was not a regular presence at the camp. He visited maybe 20 times over the two months that the Americans were imprisoned there. Still, the defense argued that Merz did everything in his power to improve the conditions at Berga, but was rebuffed by the SS guards who ran the camp. Merz claimed that he repeatedly registered complaints with his company and with SS Lieutenant Hack. Merz claimed he was responsible for having the Americans removed from working inside the tunnels after determining they were not fit for such work. A Russian detail replaced the Americans.
Merz also insisted throughout his testimony that the Americans were "better off" than the German guards ... that the Americans had winter coats and the Germans did not ... that the Americans received more meat in their soup, etc. The statements from the prisoners, of course, refuted his claims.
Metz also tried to claim responsibility for having the American work detail reassigned. Interestingly, Metz was not the original commandant in charge of the Americans. Sergeant Kunz held that title, but he was relieved of his duties apparently after the escape of Kasten, Littell and Sinner. Merz came to Berga in January, assigned to the Slovak detail and was ordered to take charge of the Americans on March 15, 1945. The defense tried to suggest that the P.O.W.s confused Metz with Kunz and, therefore, their recollections could not be trusted.
In his testimony, Metz claimed the Americans were in terrible shape by the time he took over. Metz also maintained that he organized four separate trips to hospitals for the sickest P.O.W.s. The prisoners, however, recounted stories of Metz throwing cold water on sick men, of Metz inspecting their tongues to determine whether they were fit for work, of Metz demanding they shave before he would distribute Red Cross packages. One German guard testified that on the death march, Metz gave the order to "beat them if they don't walk." (Source: FORGOTTEN VICTIMS, Mitchell Bard.)
Regarding the shooting of Goldstein, Metz claimed Goldstein tried to run away as he was escorting him back to the camp following his initial recapture. Metz said he yelled "Halt" three times before opening fire. Goldstein was shot once in the head and once in the back, though Metz said he fired just one bullet. The prosecution suggested Metz had shot Goldstein in the head while he was lying on the ground, but ballistics tests showed that both bullets were fired from more than 50 feet away. (FORGOTTEN VICTIMS, Mitchell Bard)
The prosecution also argued that Metz had murder on his mind when he himself went to retrieve Goldstein. Goldstein had been brought to the mayor's house because the town did not have a jail. The mayor testified that Metz told Goldstein that "he was going to march back and he would beat him up and would shoot him while the other Americans watched. He said that you are starting on your death march."
On October 15, 1945 the court handed down a sentence of death by hanging for both Metz and Merz. In a plea to the court prior to the sentencing, Metz suggested he cared for the prisoners "in a fatherly manner and did everything in my power to lighten the work and living conditions of the prisoners." Merz said he felt sorry for every sick and deceased American prisoner of war," but said he was powerless to make changes.
Their sentences were later commuted to life in prison, then reduced to 15 years for Metz and five years for Merz.
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