When prosecuting a 92-year old man is a very good thing

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes per Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes per Creative Commons license.

Sometimes, retribution (and by this I mean pure, unmitigated vengeance) is a perfectly appropriate part of our criminal justice system. This is true even if all the other goals of that system would say forget it.

I am glad that Germany has commenced the trial of a 92-year old former member of the Nazi Waffen-SS who is alleged to have murdered a resistance fighter near the end of WWII. Even though they are undoubtedly old men too, I am even more pleased that Germany may proceed against 30 alleged Nazi guards for their role at Auschwitz seven decades ago. See here. My only regret is that Germany will not employ the death penalty should any of these men be found guilty.

Photo Credit: AFP/ Yad Vashem Archives. A photo taken 27 May 1944 in Oswiecim, showing Nazis selecting prisoners on the platform at the entrance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Photo Credit: AFP/ Yad Vashem Archives. A photo taken 27 May 1944 in Oswiecim, showing Nazis selecting prisoners on the platform at the entrance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Justice requires that we never forgive and we never forget the offenses these men are accused of committing. It is late but it is not too late.


6 responses

  1. There is a book about revenge and justice that recently came out called Payback – you might enjoy it.

  2. I think I have to disagree with your endorsement of the second link — they’re not pursuing war criminals, they are prosecuting the meaningless functionaries of the Nazi regime. Hans Lipschis is accused of “complicity in mass murder” simply for working as a cook! “Schrimm said that even those who worked in the kitchens played a role in the camp’s overall purpose.” By the logic endorsed here, American veterans of the Iraqi war should be vulnerable to arrest and trial, in a foreign country, at any time in the next 70 years, by a government that has decided to fashion the invasion or Iraq as unjust.

    There were real Nazi officers who elected, planned, and executed a systemic genocide. They deserved trial and execution. To our knowledge they are all dead. Now, 68 years after the fall of Berlin, our bloodlust for continued vengeance demands a “new legal precedent” to find new victims: Defendants who were nearly as powerless their own victims in the machine that moved them.

    I believe that the road to peace, among people and nations, is paved with both justice and mercy. I see no virtue in prosecuting these once young and powerless men who by accident of birth were swept up into the wrong side of the central conflict of the past century.

  3. John,

    I have several responses to your thoughtful comments:

    *If some of the young and powerless men who were swept up into the the wrong side of the central conflict of the past century had withdrawn their support perhaps six million much weaker people might have survived.

    *As for your new-legal-precedent argument, Germany recognized the concept of accomplice or coconspirator liability and that concept has long been a part of most established criminal justice systems. No one could genuinely claim surprise.

    *Regarding “blood lust,” that strikes me as an unfair accusation, not to mention an ironic one. Vengeance is not bloodlust when imposed by a court of law following due process principles, particularly when compared to the vengeance of a mob. There is no reason to assume that the German legal system will treat these men unfairly.

    *As for the SS cook, and subsequent to this post, I have separately posted about him. I will await what I hope is a robust discussion about that post to address that aspect of your comment.

    *With regard to your Iraqi-war-veteran argument, I am not moved. The accused in Germany are being subjected to criminal prosecution by their own government for the crime of being an accomplice to murder, not some vague and otherwise unrecognized standard of criminal liability imposed by a foreign entity.

    Finally, I want to be clear about something. I truly respect your position, and mean no disrespect by this response. We simply disagree. After all, you may be right.

    All the best.


  4. Your response makes several points, I would like to respond to them:

    The “new legal precedent” argument is not mine, but in the source article. The article notes that prior war crimes charges were only brought “… in specific killings. THAT CHANGED IN 2011, when …” and “Efriam Suroff … praised German authorities for seeking to APPLY THE PRECEDENT as widely as possible.” [emphasis added] Mr. Suroff appears to believe that a legal precedent was established in 2011 that allowed prosecution of those previously held guiltless.

    My use of the word “bloodlust” was over the top, and frankly I knew it yesterday when I wrote it. The point I was failing to express is more of “why this” and “why now.” For half a century the world hunted and prosecuted those who directed Nazi Germany, and rightly so. Because older people tend to command younger people and we are now 68 years later, the only Nazi’s left are the most insignificant — some of whom have lived openly in society for half a century without prosecution. (I have seen televised interviews with admitted Nazis — lower level guards — who enhanced my understanding of the holocaust. Each of them is now vulnerable for their offering this education)

    The word bloodlust was supposed to signify this intense desire to prosecute even the most insignificant Nazis — many of whom will not survive to conviction, let alone serve any significant sentence. My question is with so much evil and so many just causes presently among us, why are we creating new precedents (and I maintain they are new precedents) to hold open this one incident nearly 70 years in our past. The profession of “Nazi Hunter” seems to me to have outlived its social utility,

    With no aspersions on the German courts, I contest the the statement “vengeance is not bloodlust when imposed by a court of law,” is by no means an axiom. The French revolution, inquisition, and Salem witch hunt each espoused the form, if none of the substance, of a court of law. We cannot know today how history will judge our motives.

    I surrender my argument about the Iraqi war veterens only because the non-career law clerk trumped it with a so much better one.

    I will be the first to admit that, being born 35 years after Nuremberg, my only experience with Nazi Germany is the chapter between the depression and the cold war when I took US history.Many people now alive have had a far more personal connection than I, who have had none. I am prepared to let this part of our history be consigned to history. I would not fault those more connected to the events than I who cannot agree.

  5. John,

    All good points. I am especially intrigued by your “birth date” statement. Your point is important.

    I was born in 1946. I grew up consuming every conceivable piece of information I could about the Nazi regime. I devoured Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. That book described the history of Nazi Germany from 1932 to 1945. Rise and Fall is based upon captured Third Reich documents, the available diaries of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, General Franz Halder, and of the Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, evidence and testimony from the Nuremberg trials, British Foreign Office reports, and the author’s recollection of six years reporting on the Third Reich for newspapers, the United Press International (UPI), and CBS Radio. I was captivated by the three hour movie Judgment at Nuremberg. The drama of those trials depicted in the movie grabbed me. While in law school, I argued “war crimes law” as applied to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam at the final rounds of the National Moot Court Competition in New York. In preparation, I studied everything Telford Taylor wrote about German war crimes. Taylor was the lead prosecutor for most of the major Nuremberg trials.

    In short, John, you are right–the atrocities committed by the Germans in WWII seem real to me. They have never been abstractions. There is no doubt, therefore, that my perspective is warped. Consequently, you are wise to question my objectivity.

    All the best.


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