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Nazi crimes prosecutor: 'Time is running out'

Uta Steinwehr
December 1, 2018

December 1 marks exactly 60 years since Germany established an office to prosecute Nazi criminals. Chief Prosecutor Jens Rommel tells DW that generations after WWII, much remains to be done to bring Nazis to justice.

Arrival of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, 1944
Image: imago/Reinhard Schultz

Deutsche Welle: The Second World War ended 73 years ago. The age of remaining suspected perpetrators is correspondingly high. How much work do you still have?

Jens Rommel: The Central Office in Ludwigsburg currently has more work than it has had for many years. The fact is that the courts' approach has changed, most recently in proceedings against "the bookkeeper of Auschwitz," Oskar Gröning. Today, we can prosecute people even if they were carrying out their general duties and, for example, kept the extermination machinery running in a camp. [Editor's note: Previously, the principle had been that direct involvement in the crime had to be proven.] 

This broad approach theoretically meant that a very large number of people have come under consideration. Unfortunately, in almost all cases we have found that the person is no longer alive or capable of standing trial.

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How many more suspected perpetrators are you expecting to find?

In recent years, the Central Office has handed over an average of almost 30 proceedings per year to the public prosecutor. These are proceedings in which we can describe the suspicion of murder or involvement in a murder and in which the accused is still alive.

Time is against you, so to speak. Is that frustrating?

For my colleagues and myself, it is sometimes frustrating to see how many cases we can no longer investigate. However, we are not motivated by the number of cases we can solve, we also believe that the effort itself is a meaningful response to these national mass crimes.

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Jens Rommel, chief prosecutor for Nazi crimes
Jens Rommel: Every year we lose a cohort of Nazi perpetrators who have not answered for their crimesImage: picture alliance/dpa/S. Gollnow

If the possible circle of perpetrators had been broadened earlier, more people could probably have been held accountable. Do you think the judiciary should be held responsible for the fact that the legal position changed so late?

I find it difficult to simply pillory entire generations of lawyers or the judiciary as an institution. Ultimately, as part of society, in each generation the judiciary must find answers to the questions with which these state mass crimes confront us.

It is true, however, that if the broad approach is correct, a great many people escaped who deserved to be brought to justice, much more than the people we can now prosecute.

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An elderly defendant in a Nazi crimes trial
Bringing suspected participants in the Nazi regime to justice is "a meaningful response to these national mass crimes," says the chief prosecutorImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Kirchner

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The Central Office has been around for 60 years. Especially in the early years, it was partly criticized for running the country down. Later, there was criticism to the contrary that the center was not doing enough. Looking back, what is your conclusion about your office's work?

The results are mixed. You have already mentioned the difficulties associated with the legal tools and, of course, with society as a whole. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was more a question of integrating guilty individuals than of comprehensively dealing with them. What can be depressing is that after 60 years of the Central Office, not everything has yet been cleared up and certainly not everyone has been held accountable.

Can everything ever truly be cleared up?

Like public prosecutors' offices and courts, the Central Office can only work as long as defendants are still alive and able to stand trial. We do not have a comprehensive historical mandate to solve crimes. And I am sure that in the remaining years we will not be able to process everything by legal means.

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Do you think the office will be around to celebrate its 70th anniversary?

The defendants are currently between 91 and 99 years old. Every year we lose a cohort, so to speak, that we could still prosecute.

I don't have a crystal ball and I think that we can prepare useful preliminary investigations for some more years here. But when exactly it will be transformed into a place of research and information will ultimately be up to the justice ministers, who are responsible for the office, to decide politically.

Since 2015, Senior Prosecutor Jens Rommel has run the Central Office of the State Judicial Administration for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, based in the southwestern city of Ludwigsburg. After preliminary investigations, the office forwards processed cases to the corresponding public prosecutor's offices. It has been operating since December 1, 1958.