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Germany

Combating Nazi Crime Oblivion: German Central Office Turns 50

Germany's so-called central office was set up 50 years ago to investigate Nazi crimes and bring perpetrators to justice. While chances for new trials wane, the agency keeps on fighting.

A woman stands between rows of documents in an archive

The central office has collected millions of documents

In 1958, most Germans believed that -- legally speaking -- they had dealt with their Nazi past. The Nuremberg Trials had happened more than 10 years earlier and many of those sentenced had been granted an early release from prison. West Germany was on its way to the "economic miracle" and wanted to stop thinking about the past.

But in connection with an investigation about the murder of Jews in Lithuania, the public's interest was rekindled. People realized that many perpetrators had gotten away and began to get upset about it. This eventually led to the founding of the so-called "central office" in Ludwigsburg on Dec. 1, 1958, which was supposed to conduct initial investigations that could help solve Nazi crimes.

During the first 12 months of its existence, the central office initiated 400 investigations. To date, 7,367 cases have been investigated. Major Nazi trials on the murders at Auschwitz, Treblinka or Buchenwald concentration camps would not have been possible without the agency's work, which has collected half a million documents and 1.6 million index cards in its archive.

But the busiest times for the agency happened more than 30 years ago. Between 1967 and 1971, more than 600 investigations took place at the same time.

Still in business

But five decades after its founding, the central office keeps finding leads, as the recent case of Ukraine-born Ivan Demjanjuk has shown. He was a guard at Sobibor extermination camp.

Picture of Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk still lives in the United States

Demjanjuk emigrated to the US after the war. When his true identity became known, he was extradited to Israel, where he was sentenced to death for various Nazi crimes. But the sentence was rescinded because of lack of evidence and Demjanjuk returned to the US. Investigators in Ludwigsburg keep searching for evidence.

"We're convinced today that we can prove that he was involved in the murder of at least 29,000 people," said Kurt Schrimm, who heads the central office.

Fewer chances for trials

His agency doesn't actually conduct trials itself, but hands over its findings to public prosecutors. Still, it's not very likely that the 88-year-old Demjanjuk will be extradited by the United States any time soon and face trial in Germany. Prosecutors in Munich said they did not feel the case falls within their jurisdiction and called on the federal criminal court to decide on the matter.

"Realistically speaking, the chances for a trial diminish with every year," Schrimm said. "It's not as if we don't find new evidence and suspects. Our biggest problem is to prove that they're guilty. It's getting harder and harder, not only because the accused get older, but also the witnesses -- if we can even find them in the first place."

Schrimm and his colleagues can rely on modern technology today -- the Internet and digitalized material. But international cooperation still remains important.

"We're going into Russian archives and those of the former Soviet Union to search for trial documents from 1945 and 1946," he said, adding that investigators hope to get evidence of participation in mass executions and mass murders.

Another place to look is South American immigration archives to look for people, who could be responsible for Nazi crimes. Schrimm said that the central office was also closely cooperating with authorities in the US, Canada, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Interest in justice

Kurt Schrimm

Kurt Schrimm heads the central office

Collecting, viewing and analyzing documents, the central office has outlived a lot, including debates about whether some crimes should have a statute of limitations. The central office has played a role in preventing that murder and accessory to murder fall under the statute of limitations and that horrendous Nazi crimes can be prosecuted many years after the end of the war.

"We owe it to the victims not to feel indifferent about what happened back then, not to draw a final line," Schrimm said. "Many victims have told me: 'I don't care whether these people still get punished. What's important to us is that you, as representatives of the German state, are interested to find out what happened back then."

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