Defendant Oskar Groening waits with his laywers Hans Holtermann and Susanne Frangenberg for the start of his trial in a courtroom in Lueneburg April 21.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The furor in Britain over the decision not to prosecute Lord Janner of Braunstone for alleged child sex abuse due to his severe dementia raises a number of issues, not least the irony of Janner’s own stance regarding the prosecution of elderly Nazi war criminals.
But first, a quick recap on the Janner story. Lord Janner, or Greville as he is more widely known among his large circle of friends and acquaintances (full disclosure: I know him slightly, have enjoyed his hospitality and always found him great company) was a Labor member of parliament for many years as well as the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella organization for British Jewry.
As an MP, he represented a constituency in the English Midlands city of Leicester where perhaps the only Jewish connection was the fact that he “inherited” his seat from his father, Barnett Janner, after whom the small communal settlement in northern Israel, Gan Ner, is named. The crimes of which Janner is accused, and which Janner has always denied (the allegations have surfaced a number of times over the years) took place in a Leicestershire children’s home between 1970 and the 1980s.
Despite the British director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, saying that mistakes had been made in not putting Janner on trial following the three previous investigations into his alleged activities, she ruled that due to Janner’s severe dementia, a prosecution now would not be in the public interest.
Saunders’ decision has been fiercely condemned by politicians and media commentators across the board in Britain, which comes as no surprise. Their determination to see Janner stand trial does not stem from any hidden anti-Semitic desire to see one of British Jewry’s most famous leaders humiliated; rather, it reflects the fact that the past cover-up of child abuse cases involving establishment figures has become a dominant public issue in the UK over the past couple of years.
But Saunders was right in her decision not to prosecute.
Independent medical experts ruled that Janner lacks the mental capacity to understand questions about the alleged offenses, which means he is unable to defend himself. As leading UK barrister David Pannick QC, who has assisted Janner’s legal team on this issue recently wrote: “No criminal trial could be possibly fair in such circumstances. Any judge would inevitably stop the proceedings as an abuse of process...It would have been wrong for her [Saunders] to start a prosecution that would inevitably be dismissed by any court.”
SO WHERE does that leave us in terms of Nazi war criminals? Janner himself was unequivocal here.
Discussing bringing charges against suspected elderly Nazis, Janner told the Jewish Chronicle in 2012: “I don’t care what bloody age they are. These criminals should have been dealt with years ago.”
The co-founder of the Holocaust Education Trust and the youngest war crimes investigator in the British army following the end of the Second World War, Janner has always been adamant about the need to prosecute.
When Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk was found guilty of war crimes at the age of 91, he said: “No concessions to age or the time that has passed can be made when it comes to justice for crimes of this magnitude.”
But just as Janner is now escaping trial on the grounds of severe dementia, we must reluctantly accept the fact most surviving Nazis are probably too old to be brought to justice, and only the most select of cases, such as that of 93-year-old Oskar Gröning, known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz for his role in counting cash seized from inmates, should go ahead.
And the importance of such trials lie not in the punishment they can hand down – at the age of 93, any jail sentence is more or less irrelevant – but in the educational purpose they can serve. As Holocaust denial refuses to disappear, there is still, sadly, the need for former Nazis to testify about the horrors they perpetrated.
Impressively, Auschwitz twin Eva Kor, who survived Josef Mengele’s barbaric genetic experiments at the camp, told the German court last week she does not want to see Gröning punished, despite his admitting his “moral guilt” over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Instead, she wants him “to make a statement to the young neo-Nazis of today to tell them that Auschwitz did exist and that the Nazi ideology created no winners, there were only losers. It created so much pain.”
Just as Saunders decided against Janner’s prosecution on the grounds of not being in the public interest, the final attempts to bring the last surviving Nazi war criminals to justice must also be based on whether their trial will serve a clear educational purpose, even if this means some escape trial, rather than descend into an argument over their fitness to stand trial.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.