70 Years Later, German Prosecutors to Hold Nazi Death-Camp Guards to Account

The events of the Holocaust seven decades ago are starting to fade from living memory, but the wheels of justice are still turning

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REUTERS/Peter Andrews

Barbed-wire fences at the former Auschwitz -Birkenau death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2010

The events of the Holocaust nearly seven decades ago are starting to fade from living memory, but the wheels of justice are still turning.

Der Spiegel reports that Germany’s Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes has obtained a list of 50 former Auschwitz guards from the museum at the Auschwitz memorial site. The department is also tracing guards at other death camps in a late — and possibly final — push to bring the surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice.

Before trials of those identified on the list can begin, however, the Central Office will have to find out which, if any, are still fit to stand trial. All of those identified on the list are in their 90s, Kurt Schrimm, the head of the Central Office told Der Spiegel.

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Schrimm and his colleagues have been able to broaden the scope of their investigation following the successful trial of Ukrainian-American John Demjanjuk, a former guard at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland. Demjanjuk’s case, which took place in 2011 in Munich, set a new legal precedent for prosecuting accused Nazi war criminals: abetting a war crime also applies to those who were not directly involved in a killing, like guards. The case also lowered the legal threshold for winning a conviction so long after World War II.

For some, though, there is a moral dilemma in putting people of such advanced age on trial. “As perpetrators are so old and frail, the discussion then turns into a question of whether it’s morally acceptable to try people who have been carried in on stretchers into a courtroom,” historian Thomas Weber of the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, said to the New York Times.

However, for Schrimm and his colleagues, seeking justice trumps such questions of possible ethical dilemmas. “My personal opinion is that in view of the monstrosity of these crimes, one owes it to the survivors and the victims not to simply say ‘a certain time has passed, it should be swept under the carpet,’” Schrimm told Der Spiegel.

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