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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