The average normal person would probably read about the death of a 95-year-old Auschwitz guard and think “good riddance, what a shame he lived so long.”
While I can easily understand that, my reaction was one of anger and deep frustration. As someone who has devoted almost four decades to facilitating the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, the fact that Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning died this week without serving a day of the five-year jail sentence he received last year is profoundly unjust.
In fact none of the three death camp guards or operatives who have been prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to at least four years in prison in Germany in recent years (the other two were Ivan Demjanjuk, who served in the Sobibor death camp, and Oskar Groening, the “accountant” of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp) have served a single day in jail. So the reason for my frustration and anger should be obvious and shared by many.
The mood was very different when Germany changed its prosecution policy towards Nazi war criminals some eight years ago. The new policy enabled the prosecution in Germany of Demjanjuk, whom the United States wanted to deport for concealing his wartime service in the Nazi death camp. Until the Demjanjuk case, prosecutors seeking to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in Germany had to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime against a specific victim and had done so motivated by racial hatred, a level of proof which was by then practically unattainable, given more than six decades had passed since World War II.
When the Americans had trouble finding a country willing to extradite Demjanjuk and try him on criminal charges, the Germans came to the rescue thanks to an innovative, out-of-the-box idea by prosecutors Thomas Walther and Kirsten Goetze, with the help of law professor Cornelius Nestler.
The theory was that, since the primary purpose of the six Nazi camps with the apparatus for industrialised annihilation (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Majdanek) was the mass murder of innocent civilians (Jews), any person who served there in any capacity whatsoever could be convicted of at least “accessory to murder,” the punishment for which in German law was 5-15 years in prison.
When Demjanjuk was successfully convicted in May 2011, the German authorities began searching for any and all persons who had served in death camps and had never been prosecuted. Their search yielded several dozen names of Auschwitz and Majdanek personnel, and the investigations began. So far, all those brought to trial have been convicted and sentenced to prison, but not a single one has served a solitary day of his sentence, and both Demjanjuk and now Hanning have died before incarceration.
I don’t think for a minute that this fact renders the trials meaningless, but it does lessen their impact and significance. Every effort has to be made to expedite these proceedings so that justice can not only be seen in court, but also implemented on a practical level. It might seem heartless to do so to men in their nineties, but they are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy, since they had none for their victims, some of whom were even older than they are today.
The passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers, nor should old age protect them. The fact that they were able to elude justice for decades, does not mean that they should be allowed to die in the peace and tranquility that they denied their victims.
Dr Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. He can be followed on Twitter @EZuroff and his websites are: www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com