War Crimes Investigations 'We Don't Pursue Nazis, We Pursue Murderers'

German prosecutors are currently looking in to pressing charges against several men believed to have been accomplices to murder at Auschwitz. Some in Germany are asking if justice can still be served almost 70 years after the war.

The entry gate at Auschwitz in Poland. Legal proceedings against suspected guards at the concentration camp continue in Germany today.
AP

The entry gate at Auschwitz in Poland. Legal proceedings against suspected guards at the concentration camp continue in Germany today.

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It might provide some with a sense of satisfaction, but it will likely be small and it comes very late. Decades after the end of World War II, public prosecutors in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Dortmund have opened investigations into nine elderly men alleged to have been accomplices to murder at Auschwitz.

The legal proceedings are still in the early stages and the men haven't been formally charged yet. Given the advanced age of the men and the potential charges, it is at the very least striking that judges ordered the arrest of three suspects in Baden-Württemberg, who are now being detained in prison hospitals. In these cases, the danger of their committing additional crimes can be ruled out. Furthermore, they hardly represent a flight risk and aren't likely to suppress evidence.

The precise details of their cases vary, but investigators' intentions remain the same: They want to pursue charges and try the men for crimes they purportedly committed as young men.

Some critics of the proceedings are saying enough is enough. The war ended 70 years ago, these men are frail and in some cases even suffer from dementia. They have a few years left to live at best. These voices argue they should be left alone and that public prosecutors should be dealing with more current problems.

"I can understand in some cases that people don't think these procedures are fair," said Kurt Schrimm, head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg that focuses on German war crimes committed during World War II. Many, he says, "consider our work to be anachronistic." But, he adds, he has been getting many messages of support.

From a legal perspective, there are two arguments to counter the skeptics. Under German criminal law, there is no maximum age limit for trying people. In addition, murder is not a crime that is subject to the statute of limitations. Public prosecutors are required to pursue such suspicions and have no allowance for discretion.

The moral argument is formulated by Andreas Brendel, who has headed the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit in Dortmund since 1995. He has managed dozens of cases like these, including a few pertaining to the extermination camps. He is also responsible for one of the current cases. "We have an obligation to the families of the victims and the victims themselves to pursue this," he said. "That's indisputable. It doesn't matter to me whether the accused is 25 or 92. Do people honestly think we shouldn't pursue people who may have been part of the Nazi machinery?"

Schrimm also addresses the skeptics. "Are we supposed to abstain from prosecution now just because we weren't able to pursue them in the past?" he asked. He cites an example from one case in which the lists of transports to Auschwitz were the decisive pieces of evidence. "They included six-month old infants as well as elderly people," Schrimm said. "The perpetrators at the time had absolutely no compassion, and it is fair to ask whether they themselves deserve any pity today."

Must Individual Guilt Be Proven?

In cases where these investigations turn into charges and go to trial, it isn't uncommon for prosecutors to lose. In some cases, the trial is suspended and the charges dropped, as in the case of former SS member Siert B., who was acquitted by a court in Hagen in January. Prosecutors believe he murdered a Dutch resistance fighter in 1944, but the judges acquitted him citing a lack of evidence. In others, the defendant dies before a verdict can be handed down, as happened in the case of John Demjanjuk. He died in March 2012, before Germany's Federal Court of Justice could make a final ruling in his appeal against aconviction on charges of being an accessory to murder in 28,000 deaths.

The Demjanjuk case is noteworthy nevertheless because it marked a turning point. Although prosecutors could not prove direct involvement, a Munich regional court convicted Demjanjuk because it concluded that every guard at the Sobibór extermination camp performed duties that made them accessories to murder.

Previously, individual guilt had been seen as a necessity for any conviction. That, at least was the perception of the legal community following a 1969 ruling by the Federal Court of Justice in which the conviction of SS concentration camp dentist Willi Schatz was overturned. But the Federal Court of Justice has also reached other verdicts that open the door to holding guards culpable. Thousands of cases may have gone unpursued because of the conservative legal approach of the special prosecutor's office.

Given the extreme difficulty of proving individual guilt decades later, many proceedings were dropped. But if the legal arguments made by the Munich regional court in the Demjanjuk conviction were to be applied to the other cases, there might be new prospects for obtaining convictions.

'Our Work Is Not Political'

Currently, files are being reviewed in a number of investigations into suspected Nazi criminals that were closed by prosecutors because they felt there was little chance of a conviction.

In some instances, investigators were unaware of potentially incriminating material. "I didn't even know there were still perpetrator lists before the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit turned material over to me," said Brendel. "The same applies to other public prosecutors. One can certainly debate whether or not someone should have taken a closer look at these lists 25 or 30 years ago."

Investigations into Nazi crimes, to be sure, got off to a slow start in postwar Germany. Until 1950, the occupying Allies took prosecution of Nazi crimes in their own hands. After that, "there was an assumption that the matter would be settled within a matter of years," he said, because the statute of limitations for murder at the time was 20 years, meaning the Nazi crimes would have had to be tried by 1965. Later, the statute of limitations was extended to 30 years before being eliminated altogether.

There are also cases that only came to light decades later. In 1997, Schrimm became involved in a Nazi crimes investigation as a public prosecutor. The tip-off came in the form of a postcard that included information about "a crime that no one knows about yet." The perpetrator was ultimately prosecuted more than 50 years after the end of the war.

Schrimm dismisses the oft repeated assertion that the German justice system closed its eyes to suspicions, consciously delayed proceedings or even ignored cases. "It's nonsense to say the political will was lacking," he said. The German Justice Ministry states that there have been 106,000 legal proceedings into suspected Nazi crimes. Some estimates even go as high as 170,000. "You really can't say that the justice system was sleeping on the job," said Schrimm. He also defends against the insinuation that the proceedings have been motivated by any set agenda. "Our work is not political," he said. "I wouldn't like it if I were described as the top Nazi hunter. We don't pursue Nazis, we pursue murderers."

In contrast to the 1950s, today we know there will soon be an end to the proceedings against suspected Nazi war criminals; the last living perpetrators will soon die of old age. When asked if, at that point, public prosecutors will be exposed to accusations that they allowed Nazis to get away with war crimes unscathed, he offers a circumspect answer. "Objectively speaking, mistakes were made over the course of decades starting in 1950," Schrimm said. "The judiciary can't really give itself a pat on the back."

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey

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roscoe2 02/21/2014
1. Murder cannot ever be dismissed.
Especially in light of the Holocaust, murderers cannot be allowed to go unpunished at any age. While there is a presumption that age brings wisdom, young fools grow into old fools, and young Nazis grow into old Nazis. No matter how much they may revell in their days of "glory" in their youth, they are still Nazis and should be punished as murderers; it knows no age. In fact, all it takes is a cursory viewing of the films of the time and everyone seemed to have their hands streatched out in the Nazi salute; an entire country went mad no matter how much they want to deny it today. Sure, it was another generation and another time, but that is no excuse for killing anyone, especially infants and the elderly. I once asked one of my German neighbors why it was that the Jews had to die; her answered astounded me in its matter of fact tone: "They had the money and we needed it!" I find it reprehensible that anyone would find it unnecessary to prosecute these SS murderers, but then it was not just the SS that was involved; it was every man that drove the trains, and everyone who turned their eyes away during the round-ups. In fact, I can only wonder how many of these Nazi murderers passed down their fervor to the Nazi cause to subsequent generations and it is still there just below the surface. When these once young SS men killed old people, was that fair, and was it still not murder. If Germany fails to prosecute these "old" murderers, it must still bear the guilt of the murder of millions. Guilt must also accrue to those who drove the trains, the police who assisted in the round-ups and Einsatzgruppen, as well as to the average citizen who joined the Nazi party and yelled Sieg Heil. The purging of these aged murderers is the least that the Geman nation can do. Afterall, what is the difference between a SS guard, who kept the prisoners in the camps, and the SS man who dropped the poison gas. Where was the noble Wehrmacht when the time came to preventing the murders? I have seen films wherein they actually participated, as well as the police. Unfortunately, hanging one or two old men will in no way compensate for the millions killed. One of my cousins was only 7 years old when he was burned alive by the Nazi!
obmedh 02/21/2014
2. Justice and time
The Germans have only a small time left to finish with the remaining unfinished business of WW-2. They need to use the time before it is forever gone. They must clear their national honor and face their demons. They need to revitalize the roots of their identity in the best traditions of the German Folk. The tradition of Beethoven and Schiller and Goethe and Gauss and Riemann. And yes also of Heine and Einstein. A great nation like the Germans are capable of great things, both for good and bad. And a nation gets true strength and character only by facing together as a single force, struggle, defeat and victory. Winning is nice but losing is ultimately more instructive and makes one stronger. Renewal after defeat is what builds a true national culture.
broremann 02/21/2014
3. justice
what happened 70 years ago was a crime, but still seeking vengeance against old men who were mere servant of a criminal system, is in itself a negative attitude. Let the past go now history will not be kind to those who cannot forgive
paulwehrle 02/21/2014
4. war crimes investigations
I personally feel that certain people want every German person involved as a soldier in world war 2 to pay for crimes? People should remember that they had to follow orders or they too would have been shot. It seems to me that Germany will forever be paying for for the war and made to feel guilty for it.....the past is the past.....their are more pressing things to concentrate on today. The Jews were not the only people to suffer in the war but it seems they are the only ones who are remembered .
Plywaski 02/21/2014
5.
Your story of 'We Don't Pursue Nazis, We Pursue Murderers' reminded me of the American cynical statement about criminals who get away with their financial crimes: "they laughed all the way to the bank". In the case of the operators in the extermination camps that statement can be converted to "they laughed all the way to their death supported by retirement payments from Germany as "ordinary soldiers". Walter Plywaski Ex inmate of Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and Dachau #112406
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