Germany's central office for investigating Nazi war crimes has launched a major push to bring Nazi death camp guards to justice 68 years after the end of World War II, saying on Monday it had obtained a list of 50 former Auschwitz guards still living in Germany and was seeking the names of suspects at other death camps like Sobibor and Belzec.
The office is also trying to identify people who took part in mass shootings in the "Einsatzgruppen" death squads that murdered over one million Jews, Roma and Sinti and prisoners of war in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Kurt Schrimm, the head of the Central Office of the Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, said he had received the list of names of Auschwitz guards from the museum at the memorial site. The office would now review which of the men, most of whom were likely to have been members of the SS, could stand trial, he added.
They are all aged around 90. Schrimm said his purpose was not to put old men behind bars but to give the victims a sense that justice is being done, and to shed light on historical events.
'We Owe It to the Victims'
"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,'" Schrimm told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Auschwitz isn't our only goal, we're also checking on the guards of the other extermination camps," Schrimm said.
He said the number of new suspects was unlikely to go into the hundreds, though, because the other camps had been far smaller than Auschwitz.
Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi hunter, welcomed the news but said he hoped the investigations would proceed quickly.
"There is no question that, at least in theory, this is a very positive development, but in order for the project to succeed in practical terms it will depend on the extent to which the judicial system will expedite the cases in question," Zuroff, the director of the Center's Israel office, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
He added that the Center would run a new PR campaign for Operation Last Chance II, an initiative offering rewards for information leading to the prosecution of death camp guards and Einsatzgruppen members, in the late spring. "That will produce additional suspects, whether from Auschwitz or from other death camps or from the Einsatzgruppen," said Zuroff.
Demjanjuk Verdict Paved the Way
Schrimm's office is exploiting a recent re-interpretation of German criminal law in order to bring to justice people who were small cogs in the Holocaust machine -- men and women who had hitherto been spared prosecution because they couldn't be proven to have committed specific crimes, and could hide behind the argument that they were following orders.
Schrimm said prosecutions have been made easier by the precedent set by the trial of Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, found guilty by a Munich court in May 2011 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. The crucial piece of evidence against Demjanjuk was his SS identity card from Sobibor. He died in a nursing home in the southern Bavarian town of Bad Feilnbach in March 2012, after being released pending his appeal.
"For decades the prevailing interpretation of the law was that the individual guilt of a guard had to be proven, there had to be evidence that he was involved in a specific killing or that he herded people into the gas chambers or took part in the selection or similar," Schrimm said.
"That has changed, we reinterpreted the legal position in the case of Demjanjuk and … concluded that abetting a crime can also apply to people who weren't directly involved in a killing but contributed in some way, by being a guard for example."
Schrimm said his office would now launch preliminary investigations to check which of the 50 Auschwitz guards were healthy enough and eligible to stand trial. Some may have already been prosecuted and couldn't then be tried again, he noted.
First Trials Possible This Year -- In Theory
The cases will then be handed over to regional state prosecutors' offices where the suspects are located. The office itself cannot itself indict people. Schrimm said he couldn't predict when the first trials might begin. "Theoretically, it could be this year," he added.
The Demjanjuk precedent also applies to possible future cases against death squad members. "The limitation is that the Einsatzgruppen were mostly made up of people who didn't qualify for front-line duty due to their age or for health reasons, so the chance of finding survivors here are very, very small," said Schrimm.
Senior SS members got off with lenient sentences or were acquitted in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s when courts tended to follow the argument that the top Nazi leaders were principally to blame for the Holocaust and that people carrying out orders were bound by a chain of command and therefore had limited culpability.
German courts have convicted around 6,650 Nazi war criminals in 36,000 trials since 1947, but most of those convictions occurred before 1950, and the overwhelming number of sentences amounted to less than one year in jail, according to figures from the Institute for Contemporary German History in Munich.
In their quest for the last surviving perpetrators, Schrimm and his team are combing through archives in eastern European countries as well as in South America, where many war criminals fled after the war. He recently returned from a trip to Brazil to review old immigration files there.