The 98-year-old Hungarian Laszlo Csatary was accused of complicity in the murder of thousands of Jews during World War II. He was arrested in 2012 and lived under house arrest until his death.
Csatary's trial was supposed to be held in his home country of Hungary, but the alleged criminal of war was pronounced dead on Saturday in a Budapest hospital. He is suspected of having organized the transport of 15,700 Jews from the city of Kosice to the extermination camp Auschwitz in 1944.
Csatary was convicted in absentia in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and is believed to have fled to Canada after the war where he lived for years. In the mid 1990s Canadian authorities revoked his citizenship, started an investigation on charges of crimes against humanity and moved to extradite him to Hungary. In 1997, before his official extradition, Csatary fled to Budapest where he lived until his arrest in July 2012.
The Hungarian journalist Miklos Gabor said at the time of Csatary's arrest that it was "embarrassing" for Hungary. Journalists from a British tabloid had come to Budapest to take pictures of a 97-year-old man being arrested in his underwear, presented to the world as a high-ranking Nazi officer on the run for decades. "Will Hungary become famous as a country that aids in the protection of murders?" Gabor wrote in the center-left daily Nepszabadsag. After all, Csatary had been able to live in Canada untouched for years.
Gabor wasn't the only person to express doubt with regard to Csatary's case. The Hungarian people were also quite divided over the way in which the alleged criminal of war was discovered and presented to the public.
Britain's "Sun" called him the "most-wanted Nazi war criminal in the world." The 97-year-old had been found days earlier by reporters in his Budapest apartment.
The Hungarian historian Laszlo Karsai, himself a descendent of Holocaust survivors and an expert on the time period, said that some 200,000 Hungarian soldiers were guilty of the same crimes as Csatary. He called it "false" and "misleading" to present this one man as a high-ranking war criminal.
Where were the authorities?
For a long time Csatary's name was on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of the most-wanted Nazi war criminals. The center's director, Efraim Zuroff, said he had repeatedly informed Hungarian authorities about Csatary's presence in Budapest. To no avail: Zuroff claims the authorities did nothing in response.
Chief prosecutor Tibor Ibolya rejects those claims, saying the investigation was hindered by the fact that the crimes in question were committed over 70 years ago and in a place that lies outside Hungary's current jurisdiction.
In addition, Ibolya said witnesses were needed in such a trial. And, Csatary lived for a long time in Canada.
A similar case ended a year before in 2011 with an acquittal. Sandor Kepiro, a former police officer, had been apprehended in 2006 on charges of involvement in the Novi Sad massacre in 1944. The trial began in 2011, and the judge acquitted Kepiro of the charges.
An appeal was launched, but Kepiro died before that trial could be completed, in September 2011.
Anti-Semitism in Hungary
Above and beyond the tedious legal proceedings of such cases, the way in which the Hungarian public deals with its Nazi past and the anti-Semitism that pervaded the time between the World Wars remains rather ambiguous.
Miklos Horthy, head of state during that time, was a notorious anti-Semite and was also complicit in the deportation of some 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz from May to July 1944. But his image was saved in Hungary. In several places memorials to his name were erected and commemorative plaques dedicated to his name.
The president of the Hungarian parliament, Laszlo Kover, took part in May 2012 in a commemorative ceremony for Jozsef Nyiro, a leading cultural thinker at the height of the Nazis' power in Hungary in the mid 1940s.
In response, Israel declared Kover persona non grata. Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel gave back an order of the Hungarian state on the same grounds.