In October 2021, over seventy years after the end of World War II, two former Nazis were put on trial for murder. How can it be that two Nazis are only being tried now? How were they able to evade law enforcement for far over half a century? Well, they actually didn’t.
As much as I would like to see these people be forced to hide and sink into shadows, always afraid of being caught for the rest of their lives, it just isn’t what happened. Only recently have German courts started trying lower Nazi officials. The woman, ninety-six, was a typist at the Stutthof concentration camp, and the man, one hundred, was an SS guard at Sachsenhausen.
The man, only identified as Josef S due to German privacy laws, lived for years in Brandenburg, Germany as a locksmith. He pulled the levers and triggers in the camp, killing thousands of innocent people. Why was he knowingly allowed to live a life, the very thing that he took away from so many others? How has he not already been held responsible for the deaths that he so obviously caused? It’s all about precedent.
Prior to about ten years ago, Nazis could only be convicted if prosecutors could directly link them to a specific murder. This led to a low conviction rate of death camp guards. That all changed with the prosecution of John Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk was a notoriously brutal guard at the Treblinka extermination camp. Though they had tried guards before, prosecutors attempted something new with his case. They made the argument that being a guard at the camp was itself the same as being a murderer, though they could not provide any concrete evidence of a specific murder he had committed. This argument was successful, and in 2011 he was convicted as an accessory to 27,900 murders.
This trial resulted in an increase in prosecutions of Nazi guards. Before this trial, there had been a relatively low success rate in prosecuting guards, but now there was precedent from the Demjanjuk trial to show that simply being a guard was sufficiently proactive to support a murder conviction.
This increase is clearly visible on a graph from the Washington Post, showing zero Nazi guard cases filed in 2000 and twenty-four being filed in 2017. So, going back to the recent case of Josef S, he can and is being tried for aiding and abetting the murders at the camp at which he was a guard.
But what is the point of all this legal maneuvering? Is there any justice to be found for the millions of victims of the Holocaust? No, of course not. The closest thing to justice for all of those murdered people is by prosecuting their killers. But how can you hold a typist guilty of murder for just doing her typing job?
As mentioned earlier, Irmgard Furchner, a now ninety-seven-year-old woman, was a typist from 1943 to 1945 at the Stutthof concentration camp. She was responsible for ensuring that everything ran smoothly, keeping copious records on the camp and its inhabitants. Dubbed the “secretary of evil,” she was informed “down to the last detail” of the atrocities being committed at the camp, says prosecutor Maxi Wantzen. Interestingly, since she was underage when the crimes were committed, this nearly one-hundred-year-old woman is being tried in juvenile court for aiding and abetting the murder of over ten thousand people. Though she was a small cog in the enormous machine that was the camp, had even the smallest of gears been out of sync, the machine might not have run as efficiently and brutally.
As the era of Nazi prosecutions draws to its natural end, our memory of their crimes must not. We must never forget them, and prosecutions like those discussed here help keep their memory alive.