Concentration camp guards face German courts | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.09.2013
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Concentration camp guards face German courts

In the past, they didn't have much to fear in Germany, but now 30 former guards from the Auschwitz concentration camp face court. With the suspects' ages between 87 and 97, however, time is running out.

Rails in the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau are shown, Jan. 17, 2005 in Oswiecim, southern Poland. (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

65 Jahre Befreiung Auschwitz

January 1945: the Red Army has liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. September 2013: 30 former guards from the camp face the German courts. They could be charged with complicity in murder. After almost 70 years, the accused have been found by a special team, the "Central Authority for Solving National Socialist Crimes," based in Ludwigsburg in southern Germany.

"Few will be convicted"

"The odds of still solving anything from that time were pretty low in the beginning," the head of the authority, Kurt Schrimm, told DW. "We managed to dig up 49 names. That can be considered a success."

Nine of the former concentration camp guards died in recent months. For 10 of them, the team from Ludwigsburg hasn't found enough information yet to bring them to trial. That leaves 30 people who live across Germany and who might have to go to trial.

2009 portrait of Schrimm. (Photo: dpa - Bildfunk)

Schrimm: We have to be pessimistic

Whether they will actually be charged also depends on their health, Schrimm said. "We have to be pessimistic because of the birth dates alone," he said. The youngest suspect is 87, the oldest 97 years old. "Not many of them will appear before a court," Schrimm added. "And even fewer of them will be legally convicted."

A verdict that changed everything

The investigations in Ludwigsburg only got under way after a March 2011 case found concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk guilty of being complicit in the murder of more than 28,000 people although he was not found to be personally involved in the murders. He was sentenced to five years in prison and died in 2012.

"It was no longer to present enough witnesses saying that this person fired a shot then and there, for example," said Ulrich Sander, the son of a resistance fighter who is also a member of and the spokesman for the "Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists " (VVN-BDA).

2011 photo of Demjanjuk. (Photo: Andreas Gebert dpa)

Demjanjuk's case changed how Nazi war criminals are tried in German courts

"Munich showed that if it could be proven that a certain person was part of the killing machine, they could be convicted," said Sander.

That facilitated the Nazi hunt for Schrimm and his investigators. After the Munich ruling, other courts might also be satisfied with knowing a person worked in a concentration camp and convict him of complicity in murder.

Convicting a Nazi? Not so easy

Many observers wondered, however, whether it's too late for big campaigns to try Nazi guards, and whether Germany did enough when it had the time. "In the 50s, pretty much everything remained untouched," Sander said.

As a reaction to that problem, the Central Authority in Ludwigsburg was founded in 1958. It has had to overcome obstacles ever since: witnesses were hard to find, because usually, the victims were dead and the perpetrators silent. The group also had to find allies in the judiciary field, because the members weren't and aren't allowed to bring cases in front of a judge themselves.

Additionally, murder couldn't be prosecuted 20 years after the fact, according to an old German law. Someone who killed a person in 1945 couldn't be punished in 1966. That has changed: today murder and complicity in murder no longer come under the statute of limitations.

The case of Siert Bruins

The laws of the 1950s and 1960s did indeed work in favor of Nazi criminals. Many profited from the fact that Germany didn't extradite its own citizens for a long time. Klaas Carel Faber, for example, was sentenced to life in jail in the Netherlands. But he managed to flee to Germany and thus to safety.

In a closely watched trial, this issue takes center stage again: the alleged Nazi war criminal Siert Bruins is awaiting a jury court's decision in the German city of Hagen. The 92-year-old allegedly took part in the fatal shooting of a Dutch resistance fighter nearly 70 years ago. A Dutch indictment didn't have any consequences in Germany for Bruins. But now, the German public prosecutor's office considers the shooting murder, meaning that Bruins might have to go to jail.

Csatary, Boere, Lipschis

All over the country, prosecutors try to bring perpetrators to justice before it is too late. Laszlo Csatary allegedly killed numerous Jews and died before he had to face a trial. Heinrich Boere was convicted of three murders. And Hans Lipschis, the most recent case, worked at Auschwitz in a position similar to the 30 people now under investigation.

The slogan Arbeit macht frei (Work makes you free) above the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Photo: EPA/JACEK BEDNARCZY dpa)

The Auschwitz concentration camp is a symbol of the cruel killing machine the Nazis established

The jurists of the Central Authority in Ludwigsburg continue their research, for example in South America. "We check the immigration archives here," Schrimm said, "and look for men who immigrated between 1945 and 1955 and could have been hiding something about their Nazi past." The group also plans to go over the information on the guards of all concentration camps.

The 30 guards from Auschwitz could still get their punishment in time.

"It's a good sign," Sander said. "I do believe that's important, so that the world sees that Germany isn't casting its past aside. There's still a lot to do, of course, but I think dealing with it is a good thing for our country."

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