Arrest of concentration camp guard shows sea change in German policy

Simon Wiesenthal Center lauds arrest in Pennsylvania of former Nazi who moved to the US in 1952.

June 20, 2014 06:14
2 minute read.
auschwitz sign

The sign "Arbeit macht frei" at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The arrest of an alleged concentration camp guard in the US on Thursday marks a sea change in Germany’s legal approach to the prosecution of members of the dwindling number of war criminals who participated in the Holocaust, the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated on Thursday.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the center’s chief Nazi hunter, said the arrest of Johann Breyer, a Pennsylvania resident, was significant in that it marked a shift in the burden of proof required for a successful prosecution.

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The retired tool-and-die maker, born in Czechoslovakia, is accused of joining the Waffen SS at age 17 and later serving as a camp guard. He moved to the United States in 1952. Germany is pressing for his extradition.

Germany has issued a warrant for his arrest, US Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice said, at Breyer’s court appearance in US District Court in Philadelphia.

He was the subject of deportation proceedings in the 1990s when his attorneys argued he was a natural US citizen because his mother was born in Philadelphia.

They also said that Breyer had been coerced into joining the SS.

According to Zuroff, Germany would not previously have been interested in going after Breyer, as “evidence of a specific crime against a specific victim” was required. Evidence of service in a camp was deemed insufficient. However, after the successful 2011 conviction of Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk, the evidentiary bar was lowered, Zuroff said, explaining that the case paved the way for a more vigorous approach to prosecuting Nazi crimes.

“For almost 60 years, any person the prosecutors wanted to prosecute, they had to prove that the person had committed a specific crime against a specific victim, and in many cases that was quite hard to do, and many people in a sense got off the hook because of this requirement,” Zuroff explained.

Reacting to Breyer’s arrest, Zuroff said that “this is a whole new ballgame” and that the results of the precedent set by the Demjanjuk trial have been “very dramatic.”

German prosecutors, he continued, “have already announced that they are recommending prosecution in 31 cases of people living in Germany, of Auschwitz guards, another seven were found outside of Germany, and 20 guards from Majdanek – so this is more suspects that have been brought to justice in Germany than there have been in decades.”

“We’re very pleased that Germany has adopted this strategy, it has totally changed the legal landscape as far as Nazi war criminals go,” Zuroff said, adding that the Simon Wiesenthal Center will continue investigating and passing names of suspected war criminals on to German authorities.

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