The news about the possible participation of Danish SS volunteers in the mass murder of Jews in Graz, Austria in April 1945, as revealed in the recent Koncern TV documentary series will no doubt come as a shock and a deep disappointment. This is not the first time in recent years that Danes have been implicated in Holocaust crimes. In 2015, Dennis Larsen and Therkel Straede exposed the role of Danish volunteers in a Nazi concentration camp in Bobruisk. They even found one of the guards alive and well living in Copenhagen.
When I wrote to then-Justice Minister Mette Fredrickson to request that the government investigate whether any of the other guards might still be alive, she replied SIX MONTHS later, that it was not the job of the Danish Justice Department to do so, and I had to come to Denmark to lodge an official complaint. Even after I did so, there apparently was no effort to track down the other guards, and the Wiesenthal Center had to do so itself. The investigation of Helmut Rasbol was conducted in an amateurish manner, and no charges were filed even though Rasbol had admitted in an interview shortly after his return to Denmark, that he had witnessed executions and participated in guard duties. It appeared that there was little political will to pursue such cases.
Now the Danish police are facing a potentially far bigger challenge because of the very young age of some of the potential suspects, increasing the chances that some of them will be found alive and healthy enough to face prosecution. The fate of this investigation depends on the determination of the government and the police to take the charges seriously and devote the necessary manpower and resources to do a topnotch job.
In that context, I want to point out two relatively recent events in which similar crimes were treated very seriously. One was the decision of the Finnish government to investigate the suspicions that Finnish SS volunteers had participated in Holocaust crimes on the eastern front during the initial weeks of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. No investigation of any sort had been undertaken when they returned home after the war, and there had never been any evidence of wrongdoings. In 2017, however, Finnish historian Dr. Andre Swanstrom published a document which clearly hinted that the men were involved in shooting Jews and other civilians.
Upon my request to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, a decision was made to undertake a comprehensive investigation of the role played by Finnish SS volunteers on the Eastern front. That research produced a comprehensive volume on the subject compiled by a team of researchers headed by Prof. Lars Westerlund, which confirmed that indeed it was likely that some of the Finnish SS volunteers had participated in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The willingness of the Finnish authorities to confront this issue honestly is an example of the civic courage necessary to undertake potentially unpleasant challenges.
The second event was the conviction in Hamburg of Stutthof concentration camp guard Bruno Dey of accessory to murder for his service as a watchtower guard in that Nazi concentration camp. The trial aroused doubts because Dey began his service at the age of 17 and there was no evidence that he had committed any specific crimes. The verdict of Judge Meyer-Goering brilliantly responded to those doubts by explaining that Dey’s participated in the terrible perpetrated at Stutthof and therefore had to take responsibility, and be punished by a state governed by the rule of law. She also ripped apart the “small cog” argument by asserting that the mass murders were organized and implemented by a “multitude of human beings” who made the murders possible, even without committing them themselves. And the “small cog” excuse was an attempt by Germans to distance themselves from responsibility for any crimes.
The new revelations are an opportunity not only to possibly bring the guilty to trial, but also to examine the larger issue of the Danish SS volunteers. This cannot be done without the political will of the government and the police to do the maximum possible to ascertain the facts and hold those guilty accountable. If so, Denmark will write a second chapter of the its history during World War II, that it can be proud of.