Nazi crimes: why judgments still make sense today

Status: 06/28/2022 04:29 am

The verdict against a suspected former concentration camp guard is to be announced today in the Neuruppin district court. Why the legal review comes so late – and yet it is important.

By Michael-Matthias Nordhardt and Frank Brautigam, ARD legal department

What is the process about?

The accused is 101 years old. The public prosecutor accuses him of being an accessory to more than 3,500 murders – as an SS guard in the Nazi concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. According to the indictment, the shooting of prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war and the murder of prisoners with poison gas are involved. In addition, the court deals with the killing of prisoners because hostile conditions were created and maintained in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

It is important that the accused is not accused of having committed murder himself – not that he himself shot people or served the gas chamber in the camp. But: He is said to have helped with the atrocities in the concentration camp. Put simply, one could say: because through his work in the camp he made a contribution to making it possible.

What about the statute of limitations?

Today nobody can be held criminally accountable for many crimes suffered by the people in the camps. Hundreds of thousands of deprivations of liberty, countless abuses of all kinds, robberies – all of this has been statute-barred for decades. But: Murder does not become statute-barred. And there is no statute of limitations as an aid to murder. That’s why convictions are still possible today – more than 75 years later.

Why does a conviction matter 75 years later?

“Murder does not become statute-barred” – this makes it clear that our legal system does not provide for a line in such cases. This basic decision was made against the background of the Nazi crimes, Thomas Will explains in the podcast with a view to cases like the current one The justice reporters of the ARD legal department.

The lawyer heads the “Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes”. With their investigations, the Ludwigsburg authorities ensure that the actors from back then are still being brought to justice today. Criminal law is also about restoring legal peace. Such processes can make important contributions to this. The surviving relatives of the murdered confirm this again and again when they take part in proceedings against the helpers from back then.

Why were there hardly any such procedures immediately after the war?

In the years after 1945, there was a kind of “closing line mentality” in West Germany, a tendency to forget rather than to want to come to terms with things. An important step towards more reappraisal was the Auschwitz trials at the Frankfurt Regional Court from 1963 – initiated by the Hessian Attorney General Fritz Bauer. However, this was not associated with a general rethinking.

Later in the 1960s, the Federal Court of Justice ruled with regard to Auschwitz: In order to punish the camp staff of that time for aiding and abetting, the men and women had to be shown specifically which murders they had encouraged. A virtually impossible task in the context of the mass murders in the concentration camps. Therefore, in the decades that followed, many cases against the “smaller cogs” in the Nazi killing machine were dropped by the public prosecutor’s office.

Why are these trials and judgments possible today?

A kind of turning point only came with the verdict against John Demjanjuk in 2011. The Munich district court ruled: the mere presence of the camp guard Demjanjuk in the Sobibor extermination camp and his knowledge of the murders are sufficient to convict him of aiding and abetting the murder. However, Demjanjuk died before the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) as the supreme criminal court could deal with the new line.

In 2016, however, the Karlsruhe judges confirmed it in the case of Oskar Gröning, the so-called accountant of Auschwitz – not only for pure extermination camps, but also for concentration camps.

How did the BGH justify the Gröning decision?

The central statement is: The “smaller cogs” also played a central role in the genocide of the Jews. For the Nazis, an “organized killing apparatus” with well-established processes was a prerequisite for committing thousands of murders in a very short time. Literally, the BGH decision says: “Only because they had such a structured and organized ‘industrial killing machine’ with willing and obedient subordinates at their disposal were the National Socialist rulers able to order the ‘Hungary Action’.” As part of the “Hungary Action” Hungarian Jews were deported en masse, mainly to Auschwitz. The legal assessment from the Gröning decision should also play an important role in the proceedings before the Neuruppin district court.

How many other procedures are still ongoing?

Since the decision, there have been repeated trials and judgments against former concentration camp employees: in 2016, for example, against the Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning or in 2020 against Bruno Dey, a former guard at the Stutthof concentration camp. The investigations of the “Central Office” in Ludwigsburg continue. Proceedings against a former secretary in the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk are also currently underway in the Itzehoe district court.

However, due to the advanced age of the possible perpetrators, the investigations are increasingly becoming a race against time. According to information from the head of the authorities, Thomas Will, there are currently six cases at various public prosecutor’s offices in Germany. There are also three other people “each with difficult evidence” who the “Central Office” is currently examining.

How did the processing in the GDR go?

After the war, denazification in the Soviet occupation zone and later in the GDR was initially carried out particularly rigorously – as far as the police, judiciary and internal administration were concerned. Anti-fascism was considered one of the main pillars of the GDR state ideology and was propagated internally and externally – also to present itself as the better of the two German states. Today, however, it is known that GDR citizens are said to have been granted blanket absolution if they turned to socialism in return. Likewise, Nazi perpetrators living in the GDR were probably not consistently brought to justice.

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