Prosecuting all elderly Nazis is vital for society
Published by The Jewish Chronicle (4th November, 2021)
The screens in the makeshift German court showed those horribly familiar pictures in black and white from Nazi death camps: the fences, guards, huts and miserable people trapped in hell. Then I looked down from the images being shown in a converted prison sports hall to the elderly man sitting before me, who was listening to the proceedings through headphones due to his hearing difficulties.
He could not have looked less threatening. He was 100 years old, wearing a cosy striped jersey, walked with the aid of a mobility device and complained about sleeping difficulties due to the traumatic events that had engulfed him in his twilight years. For this Lithuanian-born centenarian — known as Josef S under German law, to protect his full identity — is accused of being a key figure in the slaughter of 3,518 people in Sachsenhausen.
A police officer told the Brandenburg court this was fewer than one-tenth of those who died by way of bullets, deprivation, gas or hunger during his 40-month stint at the camp. At one point, she stretched out a list detailing the daily killings that was 45 feet long.
Two days earlier I had sat in another court 200 miles further north and watched the start of a similar trial — except this time it was against the first woman to stand trial on charges tied to the Third Reich for decades.
Irmgard Furchner, who spent two years as secretary to the commandant at Stutthof camp, was accused of complicity in the deaths of 11,412 people. Although she is 96 years old, the case is being held in a juvenile court due to her age at time of the offences. Like Josef, she covered her face at the beginning to hide from the photographers who were briefly permitted in the court, relying on a printed silk scarf rather than the folder he used.
She also wore an electronic tag on her arm, having fled last month from a nursing home to avoid finally facing trial, telling the judge she sought to “spare myself these embarrassments”.
Certainly her attempt to go on the run implied that she was fully cognisant with events. I was struck also by the surprising strength of Josef S’s voice as he spoke German in his thick Lithuanian accent.
These were extraordinary scenes to witness, joining past horrors with the present. They are among a spate of such trials, as Germany belatedly pursues some of the few remaining Holocaust perpetrators still alive. This follows the landmark 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, a former guard at Sobibor, on the basis that working at an extermination camp was sufficient to convict as accessory to murder. Previously, cases had needed proof of involvement in a particular killing.
Yet I was surprised by my own reaction in the courtroom. I was ambivalent about such trials beforehand, torn between the scale of the Nazi crimes that must never be forgotten and the extreme age and comparatively minor role of the defendants. These were not the people who directed the atrocities but minor league functionaries among the tens of thousands of individuals ensuring the smooth operation of the machinery of mass murder.
But looking at the old woman and even older man, my attitude changed. I became convinced these trials were right — even if they were decades too late, and the accused had merely had the bad luck to live longer than their contemporaries.
It was the very ordinariness of the defendants that convinced me. The banality of evil was on full display as Josef listened so intently and Furchner fiddled with her hair and tag. This pair served as a salutary reminder that unspeakable evil is carried out not by monsters, psychopaths and sadists but by ordinary human beings who take part in terrible deeds against other ordinary human beings.
The killing machines were not made out of clanking iron and cold steel but human beings like our families, our friends and our neighbours. People who ignored the misery and murder out of ambition, fear, indifference or a misguided sense of duty. These were the cogs at every level.
It is comforting to pin the blame on leaders, since it ignores the potential for depravity lying in the souls of our societies. Yet it is also a distortion of history as seen again and again in my lifetime, from the genocide in Rwanda through to the torture in Syria. Even now, look at how many citizens, corporations and countries ignore the gruesome events in western China as a communist dictatorship uses a mix of medieval barbarity and modern tech to crush a minority.
That is why these trials matter. And why I changed my mind looking at those two old folks. For they sent out a message that those participating in atrocities are never safe from justice, while reminding us that ordinary people do the most terrible things.