Interview with Nazi War Crimes Prosecutor: 'I Have Never Seen Remorse'

The trial of John Demjanjuk, who is accused of being an accessory to the murders of 27,900 Jews, is set to end this week. In a SPIEGEL interview, Ulrich Maass, one of Germany's most prominent Nazi war crimes prosecutors, discusses the case and details the failings of the country's justice system.

John Demjanjuk in the courtroom in Munich in February. Zoom
AP

John Demjanjuk in the courtroom in Munich in February.

Alleged former Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk stands accused of being an accessory to the murders of some 27,900 Jews at the Sobibór extermination camp in occupied Poland. After one-and-a-half years, the 91-year-old's trial is set to wrap up this week in Munich. It is likely to be among Germany's final Nazi war crimes trials as ageing suspects die off.

Ulrich Maass has spent the last decade pursuing similar cases as head of North Rhine-Westphalia's special public prosecutor's unit for violent Nazi war crimes from 2000 to 2010. The 64-year-old shares his insights on the Demjanjuk trial and how it reveals changes in Germany's approach to trying the remaining few Nazi perpetrators.


SPIEGEL: After one-and-a-half years of hearings, the verdict is about to be handed down in the Munich trial of John Demjanjuk. Has the defendant's guilt been proven?

Maass: The verdict will tell us that. How the death factory in Sobibór worked has been thoroughly studied. The guards were involved at all levels of the extermination effort. They picked up people from the deportation trains and, in the end, drove them into the gas chambers.

SPIEGEL: For Christiaan F. Rüter, an Amsterdam criminal law professor, Demjanjuk is the "smallest of the small fish." He was a Soviet soldier who the Germans recruited after he was captured.

Maass: This plight has to be taken into account, of course. But it doesn't mean that he was compelled to obey orders. Historians have not found any evidence that someone would have been shot if he had refused to participate in mass shootings.

SPIEGEL: Defendants got off with such arguments in the past. Why do the courts take a different view today?

Maass: At that time, the courts tended to pursue the principle that the last links in the chain of command were not to be charged. We have more comprehensive information today, such as data from Eastern European archives. Accounting for East German injustices has also given us greater insight into how much leeway existed in a dictatorship. In a groundbreaking 1995 decision, the Federal Court of Justice decided, for example, that the stricter standards that West German courts had applied to East German judges should also have been applied to Nazi judges.

SPIEGEL: But by then the Nazi judges had already died without ever being charged, like many organizers of the genocide. Now the courts are only prosecuting perpetrators at the lower end. Is that fair?

Maass: Of course not. The Allies released many of the main perpetrators after only a few years in prison, and the German courts could no longer touch them. In other cases, doctors were found who would declare 60-year-olds unfit to stand trial and issue the necessary documents, which stated that they suffered from ailments like heart problems, cirrhosis of the liver and silicosis. This doesn't fly anymore today.

SPIEGEL: How did you cope with this injustice?

Maass: You feel a certain queasiness, perhaps comparable with the feeling one has when shoplifters are caught while the big economic fraudsters manage to get away scot-free. But the alternative cannot be to let the shoplifters go, too.

SPIEGEL: Was the German judiciary persistent enough in investigating Nazi perpetrators?

Maass: Fortunately North Rhine-Westphalia decided to establish a specialized prosecution agency. But justice happens to be a matter for the states to decide …

SPIEGEL: … and in other places prosecutors were working on Nazi criminal matters in addition to their everyday activities, so that many cases fizzled out. The Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg can only conduct preliminary investigations. Should the Federal Republic of Germany have developed a central agency to prosecute Nazi criminals?

Maass: You'd have to ask the politicians. There is no such thing in German law as a special offense for Nazi mass crimes. We prosecute people for murder or aiding and abetting. We criminal prosecutors have sometimes felt like road workers who are handed a screwdriver instead of a jackhammer.

SPIEGEL: To prosecute Germany's far-left Red Army Faction terrorists more efficiently, the judiciary concentrated its competencies in the office of the General Public Prosecutor in Karlsruhe. Why wasn't this done with the Nazi perpetrators?

Maass: It depends on where politicians set their priorities. They set their sights on leftist terrorism and pursued the criminal prosecutions that ultimately led to success. This doesn't apply to our cases. In retrospect, it would certainly have been correct to assign more prosecutors to research such cases. But decades ago they were saying that the problem would resolve itself for biological reasons, because the perpetrators would die. And now, 66 years after the end of the war, we have 12 active cases in Dortmund alone.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that the Demjanjuk trial will not be the last one?

Maass: All I've done in the past few years is prepare cases that were supposedly the last of their kind. The problem, however, is that the defendants are becoming increasingly unfit to stand trial or are dying, as was the case with a former guard at the Belzec camp, who lived near Bonn.

SPIEGEL: You have dealt with dozens of men who committed murder during the Nazi era. Is there such a thing as the typical Nazi criminal, and how does he feel about his crimes?

Maass: I have never seen remorse. The usual excuse is that they acted in accordance with the law, as if there were no such thing as a higher prohibition against killing. There were sadists, but they were not the norm, which was more likely to be the ordinary accessory. "Hitler's Willing Executioners," though a controversial book title, hits the nail on the head. It was a large group of people who were prepared to do anything.

Interview conducted by Jan Friedman

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About Ulrich Maaß
Ulrich Maaß, 64, spent a decade pursuing Nazi war crimes cases as head of a special unit for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia from 2000 to 2010. He is among Germany's leading authorities on trying alleged Nazi criminals.

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