There are several factors that help explain why the prosecution of Nazis is still ongoing.
When I first started working full-time on Nazi war crimes on September 1, 1980, as the sole researcher in Israel for the United States Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, I naturally assumed that this would not be a job with a long future. It appeared as if the efforts would only last for several years, ending long before the twenty-first century began.
Yet this coming week, as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 – the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp – the effort to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice continues, and legal action is still being taken against Nazi war criminals. Not in all countries is this being followed, but at least in several of them.
In our latest report, Worldwide Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals, which covers the period from April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, the following positive results were recorded: the denaturalization of a resident of Canada, who served in Einsatzgruppen D, which murdered tens of thousands of Jews in southern Ukraine; three new indictments in Germany against concentration camp guards, two who served in the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk, where approximately 65,000 people were killed, and one against an individual who served in the Majdanek camp; and a request filed in Poland for the extradition of a commander of a Ukrainian punitive squad accused of murdering Polish civilians. Since 2001, there have been 105 cases where successful legal action has been taken against Nazi war criminals.
There are several factors that help explain why the prosecution of Nazis is still ongoing. The majority took place in the immediate aftermath of World War II, not only in West Germany. All over Europe, tens of thousands of Nazis and collaborators were brought to justice. The Cold War eventually dampened the enthusiasm to punish Nazis, and the motivation to “cleanse” Europe of participants in Holocaust crimes petered out. This might explain why Simon Wiesenthal ceased his activities in the mid-fifties and became a journalist for a few years, until the Eichmann trial, which sparked a new interest in hunting Nazis in the sixties.
That motivation was also short-lived, and it was three historical developments that strengthened Nazi-hunting to this day. The first was the discovery in the seventies in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand that thousands of Eastern European Nazi collaborators had successfully emigrated to Anglo-Saxon democracies, posing as innocent refugees fleeing Communism. In addition, it was revealed that the US – as well as some Western democracies – brought in Nazi scientists, engineers and others who had been in the employment of Western intelligence agencies, and granted them citizenship despite their sordid pasts.
Around the same time, an interest was sparked in the history of the Holocaust because of American TV series such as Holocaust and movies like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoa, which helped marshal support for postwar justice, even fifty years after the end of World War II. Another helpful development was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism, which greatly enhanced the possibilities to prosecute those who had committed crimes under Soviet control. For the first time ever, Western prosecutors had free access to pertinent witnesses, archives, and mass murder sites. The successes achieved by the American Office of Special Investigations, which was established in 1979, also encouraged other countries to seek justice as well. (From 1979 until today, the US has taken successful legal action against more Nazi war criminals than any other country in the world.)
Recently, two new factors have helped sustain efforts. The first is the extension of life expectancy in the Western world, extending the possibilities of prosecution longer than was ever expected. The second is a dramatic change in Germany’s policy vis-à-vis Holocaust perpetrators. Until about a decade ago, in order to convict a Nazi war criminal in Germany, prosecutors had to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime against a specific victim, and was motivated by racial hatred – which is virtually impossible to obtain these days. Now any person who served in a “death camp,” a concentration camp with the capability of industrialized mass murder, (i.e. by gas chambers or gas vans); or in Einsatzgruppe A, B, C, or D, special mobile killing squads which operated in areas under Soviet control, can be convicted of accessory to murder and serve anywhere from five to 15 years in prison. For the perpetrators today, that might as well be a life sentence.
Needless to say, the efforts to hold Nazi criminals accountable are a race against the clock. While the cases that do reach trial are relatively few, each one contributes to the efforts to educate society about Nazi crimes. Furthermore, this sends a vital message to those who carry out genocide, that if one commits such crimes, they may still be held accountable several years later. Adding our obligation to the victims to bring their perpetrators to justice, it becomes clear that despite the difficulties and obstacles, we should be thankful that the quest for justice continues.