This is a picture of me standing at the gates to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp just north of Berlin. In just a few weeks from today, Germany will start the trial of a Nazi guard from this very concentration camp. That former SS guard is now 100 years old, and he has recently been indicted on 3,518 counts of Accessory to Murder.
Next week begins the trial of 96-year-old Irmgard Furchner, a former secretary to the Commandant of the Stutthof concentration camp who was just a teenager at the time of the Holocaust, and who today has been indicted on 11,412 cases of aiding and abetting murder.
Are these trials, perhaps some of the last ever of Nazi war criminals, justice for the victims of the most monstrous crimes in modern history, or is this just overreach by overzealous prosecutors who are all-consumed by their history and anxious to make a name for themselves by garnering headlines?
When the unnamed Sachsenhausen concentration camp guard appears in court in a few weeks, he will be the oldest person to ever stand trial for the war crimes of the Nazi regime. At 100-years-old, he is a frail man, medically cleared to stand trial for just an hour or two each day. Taking the stand against him will be a handful of nonagenarian witnesses, all claiming to remember him and his dastardly deeds from those evil days of almost 80 years ago. Also used as evidence against him will likely be his own statements, given during interviews and interrogations by prosecutors from the Nuremberg Tribunal. Their mission and mandate after the end of the war was to track down and convict everybody directly involved in the Nazi killing apparatus. However, they were limited in who they could prosecute and how; they had to be able to prove a direct nexus to either murder, an order to murder, or extreme cruelty resulting in torture or death.
This strict mandate left open the door to light sentences for those only indirectly involved in the killing machine, and even left many Nazis completely free from prosecution. Even the now 96-year-old Irmgard Furchner’s former boss, Stutthof Commandant Paul-Werner Hoppe, a man who oversaw the executions of thousands, but who claimed that he never actually ordered such an execution, rather merely passing on orders from above, was sentenced to a meager nine years in prison in the 1950s.
So why the change in strategy now, more than 75 years after the fact? Why are prosecutors suddenly charging typists and 100-year-old guards after so much time? The answer lies in the 2011 trial of John Demjanjuk, the notorious Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible.” John Demjanjuk emigrated to the United States in 1958, settled in Ohio and raised three children, then was identified as a former SS guard in 1977, extradited to Israel in 1986, stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court and he returned to the United States before Germany requested his extradition to stand trial there in 2009. Demjanjuk’s story was the basis of a Netflix documentary titled, “The Devil Next Door.”
Demjanjuk was tried in Munich on 27,900 counts of accessory to murder for his role as a guard at Sobibor. Prosecutors did not have any direct connection between Demjanjuk and an actual, concrete act of murder or even cruelty, but they accused that as a guard at Sobibor, he was per se guilty of murder. This was almost unheard of in the German court system, and to this date, no lower-echelon Nazis had been brought to trial without evidence of that direct connection to murder. In spite of this difficulty with precedent, after an 18-month trial, Demjanjuk was convicted of the 27,900 counts of accessory to murder.
This was the first ever conviction based solely on the basis of serving as a camp guard. In its decision, the Munich court ruled that anyone who participated in the “extermination machine” was complicit and could be held responsible. This ruling opened the door for prosecutors to begin going back through cases and indicting all the fish who had gotten away the first time because of that lack of a direct nexus to an actual murder, the requirement that was thrown out by the Demjanjuk verdict.
This leads us to today, and the pending trials of a 100-year-old camp guard, and a 96-year-old former typist who served two years from the ages of 17-19 as secretary to the commandant, and my question: Are these trials justice, and who does that justice serve?
“ARBEIT MACHT FREI” was the oft-repeated motif adorning the gates of many of the Nazi concentration camps – literally, “work makes free,” translated usually as “hard work will set you free,” which is deceit and subterfuge at its finest since hard work set precisely zero Holocaust victims free, unless you count death as freedom, which, in some cases, I guess it is. There can be no doubt that the crimes of the Nazis were the most heinous of modern times, and that the Nazi regime perpetrated acts that can never be atoned nor repented. It is easy to say that there should be no time limit in the search for justice and punishment for any who were involved in the atrocities.
The point of bringing a suspect to trial is to provide justice for the victims and to punish the wrongdoer. In these two cases, is justice served by convicting a man who is now 100-years-old and living in a nursing home, and a woman who lives in an assisted living facility and was a teenager at the time of the crimes?
We know little about the centenarian going to trial due to the privacy laws of Germany, but let’s take a look at Irmgard Furchner. She answered an ad for a typist position when she was 17 years old. She worked for two years in that role, and prosecutors allege that murder orders crossed her desk during that time, and that she read them and had knowledge of what was going on. She is being charged as a juvenile, in juvenile court, due to her age at the time of the alleged crimes. Furchner has been interviewed as a witness about her involvement and activities in Sobibor on three different occasions; in 1954, 1964, and 1982. She has maintained during these interviews that she never had contact with any detainee, that she had never heard of any killings, and that she neither saw nor typed any orders involving the killing of an inmate. She also never set foot inside the concentration camp itself, working the entire time in the offices outside the walls of the prison. All of these claims are certainly conceivable and plausible. With cryptic terms like “special treatment,” and “the solution,” as the Nazis called the extermination of their victims, the communications she would have seen were very likely coded in a way that a secretary could not decipher. The Nazis were nothing if not secretive about their crimes, and they certainly didn’t send memos openly ordering mass extinctions of criminals. But, let’s just say for the sake of argument that Furchner did the worst thing she’s being accused of: that she read and passed on orders that explicitly called for inmates to be executed. We’re talking about a teenage girl. A secretary working for the government. What was she supposed to do? Was a teenager supposed to have the mental and emotional maturity to know that what she was seeing—orders from Nazi high-command officers were illegal and wrong? Even had she known, what should she have done?
A couple weeks ago, I wrote the story I called “Fürstenberg’s Dirty Little Secret” (link here) Could all of the still-living residents of the town of Fürstenberg be tried as accessories to murder? As I pointed out, it was nearly inconceivable that they didn’t know what was happening. Their proximity and complicity is clearly on par with that of Furchner, and arguable right on par with her level of involvement. Where does this slippery slope end? There are many towns throughout Germany and Poland where the residents surely knew what was happening and kept quiet. There are train engineers who transported the prisoners, and those who built and maintained the tracks, food suppliers who processed and delivered the sparse prisoner meals, architects who designed the camps, construction workers who built the barracks, chauffeurs who drove the officers, mechanics who maintained their vehicles, sheep farmers who were contracted to provide the wool used for prisoner uniforms, cobblers and leatherworkers who made their shoes…the list of those who could possibly be tried as conspirators in the Nazi death apparatus could be nearly endless. So, where does it end?
“The passage of time is no barrier to justice when it comes to the heinous crimes of the Holocaust,” said Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust, in response to the upcoming trials. She’s right, of course. Justice, however, requires that a victim is served or that a perpetrator is punished. How does it serve the victim witnesses who will testify in these trials, these nonagenarians who have relived the horrors of their youth time and time again? How are they going to punish the 100-year-old man? Are they going to push his wheelchair up the ramp of the gallows and slip his head into the hangman’s noose like they did to so many of his brethren so many years ago? Certainly not. Are they going to send him to prison to live the short remainder of his life? It doesn’t seem likely.
Last year, Bruno Dey, a man in his 90s who served as a guard at the same camp as Furchner, was found guilty by a Hamburg court for complicity in over 5,200 murders from 1944 to 1945. He was one of the many low-level Nazi defendants to have been tried in the decade since the Demjanjuk verdict. He was given a suspended sentence. If Dey, an actual guard who, at a bare minimum stood a post in a guard shack high upon the walls, who looked down into the concentration camp and bore actual witness to the exterminations of the innocent, if he wasn’t directly involved in their murders, is going to be found guilty of complicity and given a suspended sentence, then what are we to expect from the juvenile court trial of a teenaged typist who worked in a building across the way and never even saw an actual prisoner, let alone the evil deeds being done?
If the man responsible for all the operations at the Sobibor extermination camp, Furchner’s boss, Commandant Hoppe, received a sentence of 9 years in prison just a decade after his very involved role in the extermination machine, what kind of sentence are we hoping for from a 100-year-old man who was only peripherally involved, three quarters of a century later?
These trials at this point in time, with the ages and fragility of both the defendants and the witnesses, are beginning to take on a level of obscenity, a voyeuristic quality that degrades and even minimizes in a way, the horrors of the Holocaust. In my opinion, it’s time to put an end to these superfluous trials, close this terrible chapter of the previous century, and let history start to become history.
Let’s make this 100-year-old man the last Nazi.