During the past fortnight, the German authorities announced that they had indicted two people – a 100-year-old man and a 95-year-old woman – who had served in Nazi concentration camps, on charges of accessory to murder in the final step before bringing them to trial.
The woman was formally charged with complicity in the murder of 10,000 people at Stutthof, a former Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland near today’s Gdansk, where she allegedly worked as a secretary to an SS officer.
The man is accused of serving as an SS guard for three years at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of the German capital.
I have no doubt that this news, which was publicised all over the world, had a lot of people wondering why on earth this was happening, and whether such trials serve any valid purpose.
Of course, this is not the first time that such queries have been raised about the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators. Not long after the end of the second World War, some of the major criminals were already reaching retirement age, and these questions only became more and more frequent as time went on.
I have been involved in facilitating the prosecution of Nazi war criminals on a full-time basis for more than 40 years, and have faced these issues from the time I started. Whether it was in the United States or in Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand (all of which had to decide during the period from the mid-1970s to the early-1990s, whether to take action against the Nazi collaborators who had emigrated there under false pretences) or in other countries in which I found Hitler’s henchman – the advanced age of the suspects was always raised as an argument against prosecution.
Under these circumstances, I think that it would be important to reiterate the very important arguments in favour of these belated trials, whenever and wherever.
The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators. Had they been prosecuted immediately after they committed the crimes, it would only have been natural, but the fact that they had eluded justice for decades (for whatever reason) does not in any way reduce their guilt.
Old age should not afford protection for those who committed such heinous crimes. Just because a person was able to reach a very advanced age, should not protect them from prosecution. The fact that a person is 90 or 95 or even older, does not turn a murderer into one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
We owe it to the victims and their families to make a maximum effort to hold accountable for their crimes those guilty of turning innocent men, women and children into victims, just because they were categorised as “enemies of the Reich”.
These trials send a powerful message that if you commit such crimes, even decades later, you might be held accountable. This is important because it shows future genocidists and anyone contemplating joining fundamentalist terrorist groups, that while conventional justice is never perfect, the hunts for such criminals go on as long as any of them are still alive.
These trials play an important role in the fight against Holocaust denial and distortion. The latter has become a serious problem throughout post-communist Eastern Europe, as clearly evidenced this week in Poland where two outstanding Holocaust scholars, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, were convicted of distorting history by wrongly accusing a Polish mayor of persecuting Jews, thereby besmirching Poles. The former remains a serious problem in Arab and Muslim lands, where it is often government-sponsored and financed.
Nazi war criminals are the last people on earth who deserve any sympathy, since they had no sympathy for their victims: men, women, and children, some of whom were even older than they are today. When they appear in court they naturally look old and frail (and many try very hard to look even weaker than they actually are) but they didn’t commit the crimes they are accused of when they were elderly, but rather many years ago at the height of their physical strength and prowess.
Contrary to what many people think or assume, there never was a case of a German or Austrian who was executed for refusing to murder Jews. In many cases, if a person did not want to participate in executions, they could refuse to do so without any serious penalties.
One final point: In all the cases where I have helped facilitate prosecution by finding the perpetrator, there has not been a single defendant who, of his or her own volition, expressed any regret or remorse.
Very often the families of the suspects accompany them to their trials and try to create sympathy for them. Invariably, however, the victims have no family members alive who can do so, since they too were murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators. Consider this article as written by their emissary.
Dr Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California and director of the centre’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs