Germany's central office for investigating Nazi war crimes on Tuesday announced that it was recommending the prosecution of 30 alleged former guards at the Auschwitz death camp for accessory to murder. The announcement was made by Kurt Schrimm, head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg, which focuses on German war crimes committed during World War II. It could touch off a number of new trials almost seven decades after the end of the Holocaust.
Schrimm announced in the spring that his office had launched a significant push to bring former death camp guards to justice. Tuesday's recommendation relates only to those who could be identified as having worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp located in present-day Poland. Additional investigations by Schrimm's office will focus on those who may have worked at other death camps, starting with Majdanek.
Schrimm warned on Tuesday, however, that it remains unclear whether charges can be pressed in all cases. "I want to warn against excessive expectations," he told reporters. "We don't know anything about the health of those in question. It could be that only a few can really be charged."
Initially, Schrimm's office was able to identify 49 suspected former Auschwitz-Birkenau guards. Nine of them, however, have died in the meantime. A further seven live overseas -- he specifically mentioned Austria, Brazil, Croatia, the US, Poland and Israel -- and are still under investigation. Two could not be found and a final case has already been sent to prosecutors. The suspects were all born between 1916 and 1926, but Schrimm declined to provide further details about them.
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As the investigations got under way in April, Schrimm told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "My personal opinion is that in view of the monstrosity of these crimes, one owes it to the survivors and the victims not to simply say 'a certain time has passed, it should be swept under the carpet.'"
The late push has been made possible by the conviction of John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty of accessory to murder in 2011 solely on the basis of having served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp. He died last year while appealing that conviction. The court ruled that simply being a guard, absent evidence of direct involvement in murder, was enough for a conviction.
Schrimm noted on Tuesday that the ruling meant that even those who only worked in the kitchens of death camps could be held liable for being part of the machinery of murder. "We are currently searching through the archives in Russia, Belarus and Brazil for additional names of possible perpetrators," he said.
In addition to Auschwitz, where some 1.5 million people were murdered during the Holocaust, and Sobibor, Schrimm's office plans to focus on the death camps Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek and Treblinka. He noted that there are no plans to broaden the investigation to include concentration camps such as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and others because, although tens of thousands of people died in those places, they were not established solely for the purpose of extermination, making the application of the Demjanjuk precedent doubtful.