History's Judgement: Otto Heess

    No image of Otto Heess available - yet Otto Heess (b. 17 October 1897, d. ?), Heess was a German from Pforzheim who had been an office clerk by profession. He joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) on 1 May 1933, as member No. 110362. He joined the General SS in July 1933 (SS ID No. 6751), serving in the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front), the Nazi trade union organization. Heess also worked at the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt (National Socialist People's Welfare), a social welfare organization known as the NSV. By 24 December 1933 he had achieved the rank of SS-Sturmführer (SS Storm Leader), the lowest of the SS paramilitary commissioned officer ranks. In February 1940 he was transferred to the Waffen SS and assigned within the SS-Totenkopfverbände ("Death's-Head Units"), the SS organization responsible for administering the labor camps, Konzentrationslager (Concentration Camps), and death camps for the Third Reich. Here he was posted to the KL Mauthausen. Over part of 1943 he was a guard leader of work details at Mauthausen. Later he partly responsible for supervising the guards on the outside Wiener Graven (Vienna Ditch) work details. By 1943 he was promoted to Untersturmführer, correspondeding to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Wehrmacht (regular Army). On 27 August 1943 he was appointed Lagerkommandant (Camp Commander) of the sub-camp Steyr-Münichholz. By 21 June 1944 he was promoted to Obersturmführer (First Lieutenant).

    As Lagerkommandant Heess was responsible for the supervision of the Protective Custody Camp and of the guard units stationed there. He was responsible for the security of the entire camp, productivity of the work details, and the administration of the camp. The camp housed an average of about 1,500 prisoners but by April 1945 there were some 3,090 prisoners there working for the city and for Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG. Heess commanded the camp until he turned it over the US Army forces on 6 May 1945.

    Heess was arrested by American troops. He was charged and tried by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau among seven other prisoners whose actions were related to Mauthausen camps and war crimes in Case No. 000-50-5-8 (US v. Willi Auerswald et al). There were contradictory statements at his trial where Heess was accused of ordering beatings, and ordering executions while at the Vienna Ditch. And as Lagerkommandant he similarly ordered beatings and execution and also by the electric fence, shooting, and by hanging. He was also accused by fellow SS members of embezzlement of provisions to benefit himself, his family and friends. Heess admitted to beating some inmates with rubber hoses. Some witnesses for the Defense testified that conditions and food were better at the Steyr works camp than at other camps in the area owing to Heess's efforts, that he offered bonuses for productive inmates, provided better toilet and shoe repair facilities for prisoners than at other camps. Steyr works inmates reportedly worked 48 hours weekly, even while civilian workers were expected to work 60 hours. An eleventh witness for the defense testified that during his time at Steyr the perimeter fence was not electrified from 5 February to October 1943. Heess reportedly ordered guards to issue three warnings of 'Halt' before attempting to shoot any escaping prisoners. Capos and inmates known to loot food or supplies were transferred to the main KL Mauthausen. Heess reportedly allowed some self administration by prisoners inside the camp. He arranged a weekly laundry service and improved facilities for prisoners. It may be that Heess was pragmatic and worked to maintain some better degree of health of his prisoners (than at other camps) in order to attain better productivity, lessen turnover and retain trained craftsmen.

    Heess was convicted on 13 May 1946, and was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Landsberg am Lech War Criminal Prison Nr. 1, in Bavaria. The formal case trials concluded on 17 July 1947 although appeals were filed between August and December 1947 by his wife, Mrs. Gertrude Heess, and by his defense team. In 1958 the United States closed the war crimes facility, and full control of the prison was transferred to the Prison Service of the Bavarian Ministry of Justice, Federal Republic of Germany. It was about then when Heess was released. A criminal case against him was filed by the Staatsanwaltschaft Karlsruhe (Public Prosecutor), but this was dropped in 1977. Otto Heess has since died, a free man.