German justice officials on Tuesday called for local prosecutors to bring charges against thirty former guards from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Rainer Stickelberger, the justice minister of the state of Baden-Württemberg, and prosecutor chief prosecutor Kurt Schirm announced that 40 former guards from Auschwitz - the largest of the Nazi death camps - were still alive and 30 of them lived in Germany, according to an investigation by the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.
German media said the oldest was born in 1916 and the youngest in 1926. Justice campaigners say their advanced age makes it urgent that they are brought swiftly to trial.
"The accused ... are all former guards at the concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and we take the view that this job - regardless of what they can be individually accused of - makes them guilty of complicity in murder," said chief prosecutor Kurt Schirm.
"Today's announcement marks an important milestone in the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in the Federal Republic, and the Central Prosecution Office deserves full credit for this important initiative. At the same time, today's positive development underscores the failure to take such measures during the past five decades, a decision which allowed thousands of the worst hands-on killers to elude justice,” the Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff said in a statement.
In 1969 a German court ruled that former concentration camp guards could not be convicted based solely on their service and that “proof of a specific crime against a specific victim” was required for a conviction.
This, Zuroff said, “is relatively difficult to come up with.”
The 1969 ruling had “very dire practical consequences” because it meant that “people been involved in the worst places in terms of mass murder and were there and engaged in mass murder for long periods of time, could not be put on trial.”
The agency's decision to probe the former guards was prompted by the case of Ukraine-born John Demjanjuk, who died last year while appealing against a five-year jail sentence for complicity in the murder of more than 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in Poland.
Demjanjuk, a retired US mechanic, was the first Nazi war criminal to be convicted in Germany without evidence of a specific crime or victim but purely on the grounds he had served as a guard at a death camp. He died in March 2012 aged 91.
This, Zuroff said, was critical for paving the way for Tuesday’s announcement.
“The legal reasoning had changed [with Demjanjuk] apparently, and [prosecutors] convinced the court that this could be done,” he said.
Officials said that they would hand over their findings to prosecutors in 11 German states to decide whether to bring charges against the 30 survivors and are planning to re-examine the actions of all former employees of death camps and special killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) in a projects that will include research in archives held in Russia, Belarus and Brazil.
Menachem Rosensaft, the General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendents praised the German initiative, but opined that the Germans were “coming to this decision decades too late.”
Nonetheless, he told the Post, the push for prosecutions was “a victory for justice and a clear statement that the perpetrators of genocide and other atrocities against humankind will not be allowed to escape justice.”
As prosecutors in Baden-Württemberg were making their announcement, however, municipal officials in Nuremberg were preparing to invest tens of millions of Euros in renovating a massive Nazi site designed by Hitler confidant Albert Speer.
The site, in which massive Nazi party rallies were held and which was featured in the Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film Triumph of the Will, is in terrible shape and badly in need of repair according to municipal officials.
"It is an absolute obscenity for the Nuremberg municipal authorities to spend tens of millions of Euros to glorify the most virulent symbol and reminder of Nazi political extremism and bigotry in the very city where the Hitlerite racial laws that deprived German Jews of their civil and human rights were proclaimed," said Rosensaft. "The prospect of having contemporary neo-Nazis march and rally where Hitler's thugs gathered by the thousands to listen to him spew his bile should be sufficiently horrific to warrant cancelling this ill-conceived project."
According to German news sources Nuremberg Mayor Ulrich Maly has said that the renovations, which could cost up to 70 million Euros, are not about “sprucing” the site up, parts of which are protected under the law, and that his only other option was fencing off the area, which would be unattractive.
The decision to renovate, he said, is more about preserving history.
However, Rosensaft disagrees, telling the Post that “spending tens of millions of euros on restoring this symbol of the Nazi rallies” is “an obscenity.”
Nuremberg, where the Nazi racial laws that “deprived German Jews of their civil and human rights,” should not spend such funds for the protection of Nazi monuments when there are Holocaust survivors living in poverty.