Why is the trial so late

Nazi crimes in court : Why are concentration camp guards investigated so late?

In Bavaria there could be a trial against the former Auschwitz security guard Johann Breyer. Why now, why so late? The Munich ruling against the former security guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, John Demjanjuk, in 2011 actually turned things around - more in practice than in the case law itself. The Demjanjuk ruling was by no means the first case in which someone was alleged aiding and abetting was sentenced to Nazi mass murder. As early as 1966, German SS men were found guilty of complicity in the murder in Sobibor by the Hagen district court.

But at the same time even high-ranking SS officers were often convicted of aiding and abetting - for a long time only Adolf Hitler and a few other Nazi functionaries were considered to be the main perpetrators of the Holocaust for the German judiciary. The guards in the extermination camps were completely out of sight. In addition, the German investigators in the Ludwigsburg Central Office for the Elucidation of National Socialist Crimes always searched for the one verifiable act, the one murder, in which the perpetrator and victim can be precisely assigned. But that is not possible in an extermination camp like Auschwitz or Sobibor.

A US special unit is on the trail of the perpetrators

When Breyer was interviewed for the first time by US investigators in his adopted home Philadelphia in 1991, the German judiciary was not even interested in former Auschwitz guards like him. If he had stayed in Germany, he would have been able to lead an undisturbed life for more than two decades. But in the USA the Justice Department has set up a special unit, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). The new department is to check whether alleged Nazi criminals have given false information when they entered the United States. Without the detailed and knowledgeable work of the OSI people and their former boss Eli Rosenbaum, there would be no Breyer case in Germany to this day. The US judiciary itself cannot indict Nazi crimes. The starting point for the OSI investigators was therefore the entry and naturalization regulations. Anyone who deliberately concealed a job as a security guard in an extermination camp could be deprived of their US citizenship. So it was in the Demjanjuk case - the OSI investigators had also uncovered this. In the Breyer case, the legal situation was more complicated because the fact that his mother was born in the United States gave him a right to citizenship.

After Demjanjuk the files were checked again

But in both cases, the US investigators laid the basis for the later legal proceedings in Germany. This is where the German lawyer Thomas Walther comes into play, without whom neither procedure would exist either. When Walther started to work at the Central Office, he had been told that there would be no more cases before the court anyway. However, the lawyer did not want to leave it at that. He happened upon a US ruling in the Demjanjuk case and began an investigation. Walther viewed Demjanjuk's guard activity in Sobibor as an accessory to murder and broke with the Central Agency's longstanding practice of only prosecuting those who could be proven to have committed a single crime.

After the Demjanjuk ruling, the Ludwigsburg investigators went through their extensive files again and came across numerous names of Auschwitz guards who were still alive. At the same time, they recalled a case that the OSI had suggested to the Germans years ago: the Breyer case. But for a long time the Germans had dismissed it when colleagues from the OSI came with such cases. That was no longer possible after Demjanjuk.

There is great interest in these procedures in Germany. Walther, who continued to work as a lawyer after his retirement, represents seven relatives of people who were murdered in Auschwitz. Should it come to trial against Breyer, they would appear as joint plaintiffs. It is important to them that the procedure takes place, says Walther. “They want the fate of their relatives murdered in Auschwitz to be clarified in a German court.” On the other hand, a possible punishment of Breyer is secondary for them. The lawyer cannot understand why the Weiden public prosecutor questioned Jewish survivors in Hungary and a possible co-plaintiff in Berlin as part of the investigation. The statements are of no value to the trial, but the questioning has disturbed the relatives, and in this way a lot of valuable time has been lost.

The Wiesenthal Center urges you to hurry

In August there will be a hearing in the US in the Breyer case, but the 89-year-old can still appeal against a possible extradition.

In Ludwigsburg, further Auschwitz cases are currently being worked on, as the head of the authorities Kurt Schrimm reports. In addition, the investigation into the Majdanek concentration camp is nearing completion. “The preliminary investigations will soon be handed over to the public prosecutor's offices,” Schrimm told Tagesspiegel. But he is "less optimistic" than the Auschwitz guards that charges will still be brought. The Ludwigsburg investigators are also looking for living ex-members of the Einsatzgruppen, whose task it was to kill Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union. The lawyers are also active abroad: in Russia they came across judgments against prisoners of war from which they hope to gain new knowledge. For years, a focus of the work has been on South America, because many Nazis emigrated to this region after the war. With the support of the local archives, the investigators are looking for men of a certain age group who entered the country with a Red Cross passport. Most recently, the head of the authorities Schrimm was in Brazil with two employees for two and a half weeks in the spring - this was already the tenth trip to the South American country. And how many Nazi perpetrators were tracked down on these trips? None in all of South America, says Schrimm. But that's just how work is.

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Wiesenthal Center and one of the most famous “Nazi hunters”, urges us to hurry. “We don't have much time left, because 98 percent of the Nazi perpetrators are already dead.” Referring to the Ludwigsburg authorities, Zuroff says: “I hope that they have enough staff to do as much as possible as quickly as possible . "

Claudia von Salzen's reconstruction of the life of Johann Breyer can be found here.

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