Rounding up the Nazi minions

Prosecutors are racing to put on trial anyone who worked at a death camp, before they die

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes—set up in Germany in 1958 to investigate Nazi war criminals—is located in the small city of Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, in an 18th-century former women’s prison. For decades, prosecutors have used the dreary compound as a base to launch thousands of investigations into Nazi crimes. In September, German Justice Minister Rainer Stickelberger paid a visit to Ludwigsburg to affirm the office’s half-century-old mission is incomplete and must continue—for there are still Nazis who remain unpunished.

Four months earlier, chief prosecutor Kurt Schrimm had announced a new probe into Holocaust-era crimes—and, momentously, his intention to bring charges against dozens of former concentration camp guards. Breaking with German judicial history, which has favoured the prosecution of high-ranking Nazi figures, the new trials will largely deal with bit players in the concentration camp system, those never accused of specific crimes.

This renewed surge of Nazi trials would have been impossible just a few years ago; after seven decades, the surviving evidence was judged to be too fragmentary. But a controversial new interpretation of German criminal law—inspired by the much-publicized 2011 conviction (pending appeal) of death camp guard John Demjanjuk in Munich—has changed all that. According to the new interpretation, specific evidence of a crime—relayed by living witnesses or confirmed by physical evidence—is no longer necessary to prove guilt. All prosecutors need to show is that an individual worked at a concentration camp. In other words, to have been there—even, perhaps as a cook or laundry worker—is to be guilty of accessory to murder. Trials could begin as early as this year.

For months, Schrimm and a team of historians have waded through archives across Europe and conducted research in South America, where many Nazis hid out after the war. The result is a list of about 30 living men and women (aged 86 to 97) who once worked as guards at the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in occupied Poland. Yet the list is only a starting point for what Schrimm hopes will be an 11th-hour, full-court press against Hitler’s former minions. If he has his way, the crimes of moribund Nazis may yet bear the brunt of modern-day justice. “The biggest enemy is time,” Schrimm told reporters. But “one owes it to the survivors and the victims.”

In the decades following the famed Nuremberg trials against high-ranking Nazis, there have been many trials of lesser players in the Third Reich, including concentration camp guards. German courts have convicted over 6,500 Nazi war criminals—though many received sentences of just several months in jail. Yet “only a tiny, tiny percentage of perpetrators of Nazi crimes were ever tried?.?.?.? far less than 0.1 of one per cent,” says Michael Marrus, professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto. From the mid-1950s onwards, writes historian Gerald Steinacher in Nazis on the Run, “hardly anyone had to fear prosecution by the state and the judiciary over his past.”

Every once in a while, a former Nazi is tracked down and prosecuted. Recently, there was 98-year-old László Csatáry, who died of pneumonia last August while facing charges that, in 1944, he tortured and executed Jews in present-day Slovakia. (In between then and now, he enjoyed quiet work as an art dealer in Montreal.) Lithuanian-born Hans Lipschis was arrested in May, at the age of 93 after decades in Chicago, on charges that he worked at Auschwitz.

But the most important Nazi trial of recent years is that of John Demjanjuk. In the Second World War the Ukrainian was drafted into the Red Army to fight against Germany. In 1942, he was captured and became a German prisoner. But before long, prosecutors charged, Demjanjuk was released because he volunteered to work as a guard at a German-run death camp in occupied Poland. After the war, he immigrated to the U.S., where he found work at a Ford plant in Ohio and settled down with a wife and two children. It was decades before he was discovered and deported.

The question of whether Demjanjuk chose to work as a guard was at the heart of his 2009-11 Munich trial, which Demjanjuk, then riddled with disease, attended in a wheelchair. (He often fell asleep during proceedings.) He was found guilty of 28,060 charges of accessory to murder. For the first time in German history, the alleged Nazi was not accused of any specific crime, like herding prisoners to gas chambers. And witnesses were not brought in to testify against him. Rather, Demjanjuk was found guilty by mere fact that he was employed at a death camp, as evidenced by an ID card.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 during his appeals process, and so his case is not, formally speaking, a legal precedent. Still, prosecutors are interpreting it as such. This might mean that many more cases, for which evidence is meagre or missing, can now be brought to trial, prosecutor Schrimm told the BBC. “Simply being where the killing took place would be enough for a conviction.”

Prosecutors will start with Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most potent symbol of Nazi barbarity. But then they will pursue former guards and possibly lesser employees from other death camps. The Central Office in Ludwigsburg has drawn a distinction between concentration camps, which had associated labour camps, and death camps, whose sole purpose was to murder en masse. The so-called Demjanjuk precedent will only apply in death camp cases—since everyone who worked at a death camp, prosecutors argue, would necessarily have contributed to the machinery of slaughter. Investigators are also pursuing former members of Einsatzgruppen, the roaming death squads that played a key role in Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish question.”

The new legal interpretation remains contentious. “Can you necessarily say that anybody who worked as a guard in a concentration camp is guilty of a murder, of a war crime?” asks historian Guy Walters, author of Hunting Evil. “I don’t know the answer to that.” The model of guilt by association has left many with a sense of unease. “I can assure you,” says the historian Marrus, “people did not walk away from the Demjanjuk trial with a sense that justice has been done.”

Yet supporters believe new trials can serve a larger purpose. “Many of the early trials focused on the spectacular perpetrators of the Holocaust,” says Lawrence Douglas, a historian and legal scholar at Amherst University who attended the Demjanjuk proceedings. “One of the things that these relatively minor, belated trials teach us is that the Holocaust was mainly achieved by minor foot soldiers.”

For others, the Demjanjuk precedent is a more straightforward affirmation of justice. “The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers,” says Efraim Zuroff, of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Moreover, says Zuroff, more trials will ensure that former Nazis everywhere—even those close to death—are prevented from resting easy.




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Rounding up the Nazi minions

  1. While I believe the old Nazi’s should be punished for their crimes, the truth of the matter is that they are no longer a threat.
    I’m more worried about the new nazi’s who cloak their anti-semitism in the form of calling for boycotts of Israel, or under the guise of false concern for the “palestinians” ….previously known as Egyptians or Jordanians.

    • When anti-semitism is defined by the christian right as “any criticism of Israel whatsoever” then the very term itself becomes meaningless. Maybe that’s what the modern day right want, to disparage the use of the term so that once again they can scapegoat those who they find don’t fit in with their idea of citizenhood.
      Harper’s talking points, which you slavishly repeat, show that he is a friend of the criminal Netanyahu but is no friend to Israel or the Jews. The good people of Israel would do well to see through Harper’s lies and soft soaping.

      • Off topic.

      • I’m Right…but not a Christian. I’m an athiest on the right.
        I don’t really feel the need to respond to your views….as I think the Prime Minister described folks like you already.
        “What he said”…is good enough.

        • Harper basically said anyone who disagrees with Netanyahu is an anti-semite. And you agreed with this.
          Congratulations on equating opposition to Nazi race policy and its terrible consequences with propping up the Likud party in Israel. I guess we all know who the real anti-semites are, namely those who would seek to minimise the holocaust in order to prop up a kindred political spirit.
          I see the far right is polishing its jackboots once more.

  2. I’m a WW2 buff & have read & watched many accurate accounts of the camp atrocities & would agree that this type of new interpretation should stand.
    A person working there would need to come & go from their house & would be witness to the horrifying treatment each & every day anew.

    Hell, the stench alone walking to the camp should have been enough to cause grave guilt.

  3. Isn’t this beating a dead horse? While I agree and acknowledge the evil atrocities were in fact real, done by real evil people, a 18 year old in 1942 would be 90 years old today. If they were 28 in 1942, that makes them a 100 today.

    My guess is 99%++ pf them are dead or so out if it that justice at this point in time is impossible. This is really a ghost hunt.

    Lets say a 87 year old today was a Nazi, that would put them at 18 on the last day of the war in 1945. It is highly doubtful they had any authority or control and didn’t initiate anything.

    Time to move on to current threats. As any time ANY organization (religious, political or otherwise) gets too much control of peoples minds and cultures, the Nazi scourge could easily reoccur. And there are signed of WW III happening just like WW II, in fact, our economics debt fraud and war excuses to bomb Syria/Iran puts us at about 1938.

  4. Why are we going after the bit players in a war that ended nearly seventy years ago while ignoring the proven war crimes committed today? Never again for who? Shouldn’t it be never again for anyone?

    • I wouldn’t consider anyone who played a part in the Holocaust to be a “bit player” and I never said they shouldn’t be punished. I just wrote they are not the main threat today.
      If you want to see anti-semitism in its rawest form…..just visit any Canadian University campus. Of course, they try to mask their intentions under the guise of “justice for Palestine”….but they aren’t really fooling anyone…….least of all the Prime Minister.

      • And neither are you on the far right fooling anyone with your seeking to make meaningless the term anti-semite. For some of us the term means something and it isn’t a hook by which you can profess your support for extremist Likud politicians.

  5. Demjanjuk made the best (for him) of a bad situation. He faced a high likelihood of death in a POW camp. I don’t know what I would have done in that case. He extended his life and was lucky not to have been killed at the end of the war. It was right to prosecute him and at least prevent him from resting easy in the end.

  6. “…All prosecutors need to show is that an individual worked at a
    concentration camp. In other words, to have been there—even, perhaps as a
    cook or laundry worker—is to be guilty of accessory to murder. Trials
    could begin as early as this year….”

    Well, that summarizes this completely, aka the potential for “false” accusations ?

  7. So all the Germans of the war have been found, arrested and tried? That Demjaniuk sham is terrible. Are they going to go after the Ostarbeiter and other forced labourers from Eastern Europe who were rounded up to work in Germany? Hey, my father worked in a factory where they made bolts for tanks. Is he next?

  8. On the Demjanjuk case..That so-called Nazi ID card is VERY QUESTIONABLE…A person that was also a guard at the same camp that Demjanjuk was alleged to have been at the trial said, “When the American soldiers came to the concentration camp, we destroyed our ID cards.I burn mines.”. Which questions if this Nazi ID card was a KGB fabrication that the defense had claimed it was. The guy that testified against Demjanjuk in Germany stated that this is not the man he knew, and saw no resemblance to the person he knew….The author of this article FAILS to even mention that some 2 years before Demjanjuk was deported to Germany. The government of Poland investigated of trying Demjanjuk, after all Treblika is located in Poland and Poland had a better claim than Germany.After a year of investigation the Polish prosecutors office concluded, “There is not enough evidence to charge Demjanjuk for crimes in Treblika or charge him for any crimes at all in Poland during the Nazi occupation.” Poland considers the case closed..The Nazi hunters were upset with Poland’s decision and stated so publicly…It seems that the Nazi hunters will go after anyone that was employed. Even if the guy that’s accused in question, his job was just to put stamps on the envelopes to drop in the nearest mailbox.

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