'Hurried Action': Germany Criticized for Late Push on War Criminals

The main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz I. Zoom
AP

The main gate of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz I.

Last week's arrest of a 93-year-old on suspicion of abetting murder as a guard at Auschwitz is part of a late push by German authorities to bring lower-ranking Nazi helpers to justice. Legal experts say they should have -- and could have -- done so decades ago.

Legal experts say last week's arrest of a 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard in Germany has come decades too late and that prosecutors are making themselves look implausible with their sudden push to bring lower-ranking helpers of the Nazi regime to justice at this stage.

Frits Rüter, a Dutch law professor described as "scandalous" the behavior of Germany's Central Office of the Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, based in Ludwigsburg. "It's suddenly descended into taking hurried action," said Rüter, who heads a research project on justice and Nazi crimes.

Lithuanian-born Hans Lipschis, who lives in Aalen, southwestern Germany, was taken into custody last week on suspicion of having "supported" the mass murder in Auschwitz in his alleged capacity as an SS guard there between autumn 1941 until early 1945, the Stuttgart public prosecutor's office said. He was added to the Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals list of the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem in April.

Fifty Auschwitz Guards Still Alive in Gemany

Lipschis is among 50 Auschwitz guards who are still alive in Germany today and who are being investigated following a precedent set by the conviction of Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk in May 2011. Demjanjuk was found guilty by a Munich court and sentenced to five years in jail for being an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Jews while he was a guard at Sobibor in occupied Poland.

According to Kurt Schrimm, the head of the Ludwigsburg Central Office, the Demjanjuk conviction represented a new interpretation of the law. It had made new trials feasible because prosecutors no longer need to establish culpability in specific murders to secure a conviction. Having been a guard in a death camp was now seen as proof enough of having assisted in murder.

However, Cologne-based law professor Cornelius Nestler said that supposedly legal interpretation had existed for decades. "This broad understanding of abetment already existed in Nazi trials back in the 1960s," he said. He added that prosecutors had been "judicially blind" by targeting only concentration camp guards whom they could accuse of individual crimes.

At the very latest, systematic investigations could have started as soon as the court allowed Demjanjuk to be brought to trial -- almost four years ago, said Nestler.

SPIEGEL

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1. why is germany always wrong?
Inglenda2 05/13/2013
Germany should be praised, not criticised, for all it has done to deal with its own war criminals! Many countries, which point a finger towards Germany, do and have done nothing whatsoever, to bring their own criminals to justice. The crimes against humanity, which were committed before, during and after WW2, are still often not even admitted to. Here Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia, could learn a lot from Germany's honesty.
2. Way too late
Guy Slater 05/14/2013
As a (retired) US soldier, I think that attempting to hold accountable those that were no more than guards in the concentration camps is not legal and is morally wrong. We tend to forget that the young men in Germany were drafted into the Reichswahr, just as young men in the US were drafted into the Army from World War II until 1973. When one is a draftee, few, if any choices can be made. The choices are made for you. "The SS has a need for 2,000 men. Not enough are volunteering, so the next 3,000 men conscripted into service will go to the SS." During the Vietnam War, when I joined the Army, I watched two men break down in tears and on faint when they were told they were drafted into the Marines. Being drafted into the SS, therefore, is not beyond my imagination. The SS Guard arrested in this article is 93 years old. In 1941 he was 20 or 21 years old. If he was a Private when he began his guard duty, what responsibility did he have for the massacre that occurred in the camps? If it were ever the intent of the Federal Republic to prosecute every individual who wore an SS uniform, doing so in the 1950's would have been honest and moral. Doing so in the 2010's seems to me to be more political than seeking justice. For the victims of the Holocaust, there will never be "justice." "Justice delayed is justice denied" is a statement from our own (the US) Civil Rights era. I think it applies to the present day prosecution of soldiers from Germany in World War II.
3. Collective guilt and bad law
Auslander 05/14/2013
Dear Irglenda; It is not a question of being critical of Germany, but rather a combination of the last hurrah for the concept of collective guilt coupled with some very bad law. The decision in the Demjanjuk case was a dangerous precedent, for it allowed a conviction to be based upon mere presence, without the necessity of proving any other overt acts. It eliminated the necessity of a nexus between the individual and the crime. You were present - therefore you are guilty. The concept of aiding and abetting requires [or did require in Germany] some affirmative act. Under this wide open concept, one could charge every living Wehrmacht soldier who fought on the eastern front to hold back the Russian onslaught for aiding and abetting as they were [albeit for the most part unknowingly] protecting the death camps in Poland. A second problem arises with the concept of competency. One must have a rational and factual understanding of the nature of the proceedings and of the accusations. One must be able to communicate and cooperate with ones attorneys. It is logical to assume that a significant number of these men would not pass the test. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and certainly wheeling someone with Alzheimer’s into a courtroom doesn’t exactly seem to be an exercise in due process. Finally, what of punishment? Having some familiarity with German standards, there is probably not a great difference between a prison geriatrics ward and the average Altersheim. It’s simply too late for trials that would have any deterrent or punitive effect. How many slave laborers were worked to death in the Rocket factories? Werner Von Braun was rehabilitated and is a hero of space exploration. It seems a little hypocritical. The war and its horrors and inhumanity should neither be forgotten nor minimized. Eighty five percent of the current German population was born after 1945. The underlying theme of collective guilt still seems ingrained in German society. “Der die Missetat der Väter heimsucht auf Kinder und Kindeskinder bis ins dritte und vierte Glied.” Why should any German born after 1945 continue to have guilt for something that occurred before their birth. It could be argued that if these trials occur, that they would be the last act of self flagellation for the cult of collective guilt.
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