Convicting Nazi war criminals

JOURNALISTS TAKE pictures of defendant Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former guard at the Auschwitz death camp, before his verdict in Detmold, Germany. (photo credit: REUTERS)
JOURNALISTS TAKE pictures of defendant Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former guard at the Auschwitz death camp, before his verdict in Detmold, Germany.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The conviction late last week in Detmold by a German court of former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning was the third case won by German prosecutors against death camp operatives since 2011, in the wake of a dramatic change in Germany’s prosecution policy vis-a-vis suspected Nazi war criminals.
The irony of the story in these cases is, that if not for the problematic result of the trial in Israel of Ivan Demjanjuk, none of those convicted would have ever been held accountable by a German court.
Demjanjuk was originally extradited to Israel from the United States based on his conviction for concealing his role as one of a pair of SS guards who ran the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp while emigrating to America and subsequently acquiring US citizenship.
(The Nazi war criminals/collaborators residing in the US could not be prosecuted for their crimes, since they were committed overseas and their victims were not Americans. Consequently the US tried these individuals for emigration and naturalization violations, rather than criminal charges.) In the course of Demjanjuk’s appeal against his original death sentence in the Jerusalem district court, it emerged that he had been misidentified in the US, and that he was not the arch murderer of Treblinka, but rather an armed SS guard who had served at the Sobibor and Majdanek death camps and other concentration camps.
In the wake of those revelations, he was convicted by the Israeli Supreme Court of membership in a Nazi organization, a crime which carried a punishment of seven years’ imprisonment, which he had already served, and under those circumstances, he was sent back to the US. Demjanjuk was subsequently able to regain his American citizenship, but to the credit of the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations [OSI], headed by Eli M. Rosenbaum, the agency established in 1979 to take legal action against Nazi war criminals living in the US, they again had him denaturalized, this time for his service in Sobibor, and ordered deported.
The problem was, however, that no country was initially willing to admit Demjanjuk, which meant that he could continue living in the US. At that point, the OSI appealed to Germany on the grounds that Demjanjuk had served in Nazi death and concentration camps, but the problem was that German prosecution policy at the time required evidence of a specific crime against a specific victim which was motivated by hate as a basis for extradition, and that was lacking in the Demjanjuk case. OSI, however, was very persistent in seeking ways to convince the Germans to take the former death camp guard, and thanks to Thomas Walther, and with the help of Kirsten Goetze, two German prosecutors at the Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes [Zentrale Stelle], the government agency entrusted with initiating cases against Nazi war criminals, a legal strategy was devised to enable the prosecution of Demjanjuk.
The strategy was based on a more accurate understanding of the reality in a death camp like Sobibor, whose sole purpose was the mass murder of Jews. In a camp of this sort, in essence all the guards and Nazi personnel were participants in the mass murder process and therefore could be charged with at least accessory to murder. On that basis, Demjanjuk was extradited to Germany and put on trial in Munich in fall 2009.
In May 2011, he was convicted of accessory to 27,900 cases of murder, which was approximately the number of Jews deported to Sobibor during the months that he served in the death camp, from late March until mid-September 1943. Once this new approach was accepted by the court in Munich, the Zentrale Stelle immediately launched a worldwide search for any and all persons who had served in any of the six death camps, or in the notorious Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units, where the same principle could apply, and who had hitherto never been prosecuted.
Several dozen such persons were initially found, but their number has dwindled as time goes by without them being brought to trial. In the meantime, Oskar Groening, the “accountant of Auschwitz,” was convicted in July 2015, and Hanning was found guilty last Friday. Each of these convictions strengthened the case for such prosecutions. Thus, for example, the fact that there was no evidence that Groening was ever physically involved in the mass murders reinforced the principle that one did not even have to be a guard to be convicted. In the verdict delivered in the Hanning case, German Judge Anke Grudda emphasized that every SS man who served in Auschwitz bore at least partial responsibility for all the murders committed in the camp, and that no SS man in that place could possibly be innocent. She also noted that the crimes were not only those carried out in the gas chambers, but included every inmate shot, and every person starved to death.
These landmark decisions pave the way for additional trials, but time is rapidly running out. Of the four defendants slated to be brought to trial 2016, only Hanning has already been convicted. Another Auschwitz guard, Ernst Tremmel, has died, and the trial of SS medic Hubert Zafke is currently suspended for medical reasons. Under these circumstances, the German authorities owe it to the Nazis’ victims to do everything in their power to expedite these cases so that justice can be maximized even at this late date.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book, written together with Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, is Musiškiai; Kelionu Su Priešu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), which deals with Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes. His websites are: and He can be followed on Twitter @ EZuroff and on Facebook.