Final push to bring Nazi war criminals to trial

Final push to bring Nazi war criminals to trial

Amid a final push to locate and bring to trial the last surviving Nazi war criminals, there are claims some could be hiding in Australia. 

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

German authorities have recommended that 30 elderly men who served as guards at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during the Second World War, should face prosecution.

The decision comes amid a final push to locate and bring to trial the last surviving Nazi war criminals of the Second World War.

And as Andrea Nierhoff reports, there are claims that some of those criminals could be hiding in Australia.

For more than 60 years, German courts only prosecuted Nazi war criminals if evidence showed they had personally committed atrocities during the Second Word War.

But since a 2011 landmark case, all former camp guards can be tried.

In that year, a Munich court sentenced former camp guard John Demjanjuk to five years in prison for complicity in the killing of more than 28,000 Jews.

Now, justice officials in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg are recommending charges against 30 men who worked as guards at Auschwitz, one of the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps.

More than one-million people - mostly Jews, but also members of other persecuted groups - died in gas chambers or of forced labour, sickness and starvation in Auschwitz.

It's being recommended that the former guards, now aged in their mid-to-late 90s, should face charges of being accessories to murder

Spokesperson for the museum and memorial that now occupy the site, Pawel Sawicki, says it's another step forward in the battle for justice.

"It's a good signal that even after 70 years the law system tries to find perpetrators. Of course it's open for huge discussion and reflection why it's so late. What was the political situation that didn't allow to find those people that commit those crimes earlier? What was the world situation that allowed those people to escape? Probably it will not bring any historical information that is new for us but it is a message, it is a symbol, and I think it's very valuable."

Law expert with Perth's Murdoch University, Jurgen Brohmer, also welcomes the German officials' decision.

But he says a lot of valuable time has been wasted in bringing such action.

"There can be no doubt that time has been lost because by and large in the 1950s and the 60s not enough was done in terms of investigating these matters and having a semi-fresh memory of these matters and dealing with these matters, and more needed to have happened in those first two decades after that catastrophe. Then in the 70s and 80s I think a lot was done to catch up but as we can see now the fact that these individuals are put to justice now so long after the fact is of course a weakness that is undeniable."

In July this year, the Jewish advocacy group, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre launched a poster campaign around Germany, urging members of the public to pass on information about any surviving Nazi war criminals.

Director of the centre's Israel office, Dr Efraim Zuroff, says the posters remind people of the true horror of the Holocaust.

"We have received hundreds of tips, information of all sorts and now we're assessing that information, we already gave in one case to the German prosecutors. Of course there are other people who can and should be brought to justice and we're hoping to get as many as possible of them."

Although Dr Zuroff doesn't know the exact number of Nazi war criminals alive around the world, he believes there are many.

And he criticises Australia for its inaction in finding and charging fugitives - and for failing to ever successfully prosecute a Nazi war criminal.

"Australia has failed miserably on this issue I have to say, and has not taken successful legal action against a single Nazi war criminal. It's the only country in the Western world which has sought to bring these people to justice, which has not succeeded in a single case."

Jeremy Jones, from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, also believes there could be Nazi war criminals hiding out in Australia.

"I think there's every possibility that there are people in Australia who were involved either in the Nazi crimes against humanity or subsequent crimes against humanity. I know when there were investigations in Australia into the situation it was found that many hundreds came here after the second World War, as part of our mass migration. We had hundreds of thousands, of whom hundreds are Nazi war criminals. We were talking about a variable small percentage of the overall migration program but there was a large number of people who came from Europe, amongst those who sought refuge were those who were fugitives."

The John Demjanjuk case in 2011 widened the scope for people who could be charged with being accessories to murder while working in the death camps during the Second World War.

Professor Brohmer from Murdoch University says while the case was significant, it hasn't led to a flood of new cases being brought before the courts.

"It's a question of how much and how broadly can you attribute actions to an individual, so in other words, do you have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that that particular individual pulled the trigger, did whatever led to the death or the injury of the victim, or is it enough to prove that they were present in that context that they contributed to that outcome. In earlier decades that attribution rule was a bit more strict whereas the Demjanjuk decision in 2011 was less strict and let it suffice that the general presence of the person in that scenario could be proven, without having to prove individual acts, which however still means it is an individual that is accused."

Jeremy Jones from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council thinks the key to uncovering more details and possible perpetrators is through continued research.

He says even though the Second World War ended almost 70 years ago, there is still much to find out about the crimes that were committed.

"Of all matters of history that which has had the most resources, and scholarship, the most effort, the most writing research done by a long shot has been the Nazi Holocaust, so people are discovering more details, more names, more villages where local massacres took place, more cemeteries, a broader network of death camps and labour camps and concentration camps, and as more research comes up there's more possibility of people being investigated. But just as more research is coming to light so is the advancing age of people who otherwise may have been prosecuted. We have had the reality where there have been people who have lived basically their whole lives, certainly their whole post-war life in peace and comfort in Australia without any fear of prosecution. When the prosecution came they had already reached the very last years of their life and certainly the last years of good health."

All agree that Germany has made a big effort to acknowledge the terrible legacy the Second World War left behind.

But for Efraim Zuroff, from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, it will never be enough.

"I think that would be impossible, they never can compensate for the horrible crimes that they committed, and the horrendous damage and loss of life caused by the Third Reich. But they have made a serious attempt to do so. There is the issue of prosecution of Nazi war criminals which has a very mixed record I should say. For many years, the attempts to do so were partial and not very successful. But having said that, you can't ignore the fact that Germany has done a lot to try and make up for the years of crimes of the Third Reich."

Source: SBS Radio