Since 2001, Germany has convicted all of six defendants accused of Nazi crimes. This year, however, now that the prosecutor's office in Germany has determined that four Germans (three men and a woman) served in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, it's possible we will see a new conviction record. What is behind this sudden surge in indictments in Germany, when 70 years have already passed since the end of World War II and every defendant is over 90 years old?
The dramatic shift in Germany's indictment policies for Nazi criminals is linked to the case of John Demjanjuk, who was expelled from Israel after it emerged that he was not "Ivan the Terrible" from Treblinka, rather "just" an armed SS sentry stationed at the Sobibor death camp. Following his expulsion to the United States, Demjanjuk managed to get his U.S. citizenship reinstated, but the Americans were intent on banishing him, ultimately revoking his citizenship yet again and securing a deportation order against him. They were not, however, able to find a country willing to request his extradition.
The only country with the potential of requesting extradition was Germany, but there were no living witnesses able to testify that Demjanjuk committed a specific crime against a specific victim and was motived by racial hatred (which was the standard for conviction in Germany at the time). The U.S. tried persuading -- and the Wiesenthal Center also encouraged -- the Germans to change their policy, and the result was indeed dramatic. Two prosecutors from Germany's Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, Thomas Walther and Kirsten Goetze, formulated an outline to facilitate bringing Demjanjuk to trial in Germany and significantly increase the Germans' ability to prosecute a large number of Nazi collaborators, previously exempt from standing trial.
According to the new system, anyone who had served in any of the six death camps or in Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D, which operated in the former Soviet Union, was eligible for prosecution. The logic behind this system was that anyone who served within any of these frameworks contributed to the attempted implementation of the Final Solution, and is therefore guilty of at least "abetting murder" -- a crime with a minimal sentence of five years in prison.
The first test for this new policy was the Demjanjuk trial, which in May 2011 ended in his conviction for abetting murder. It effectively paved the way for a widespread search for anyone who served in a death camp or Einsatzgruppen unit, which yielded some 70 suspects from Auschwitz and Majdanek. In the meantime, Oskar Groening, who stole money from the prisoners he processed at Auschwitz, was also convicted; and we recently received news that eight living Einsatzgruppen members have also been located, meaning that the number of convictions could be significant.
The cynics will say it's too little too late, but even a shred of justice is better than ignoring those responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, even those who played a relatively minor role. This is our duty to the victims, and we will do everything in our power to fulfill it faithfully and diligently.