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A 101-year-old Nazi is convicted: Late justice is still justice

Josef Schutze lived to hear a German judge sentence him for helping murder thousands of Sachsenhausen concentration camp inmates. That's a victory.
Defendant Josef Schuetz hides his face behind a folder as he arrives for his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)
Defendant Josef Schuetz hides his face behind a folder as he arrives for his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

The conviction of a Nazi war criminal is hardly a common occurrence these days, not even in Germany, the only country in the world that is still relatively active in investigating and prosecuting Nazi perpetrators. Last week, in fact, a new record of sorts was established, as 101-year-old Josef Schutze was convicted of accessory to the murder of 3,518 inmates of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, making him the oldest Nazi criminal ever convicted of Holocaust crimes.

For those of us who played a role in helping to achieve this result, the verdict was extremely gratifying. It ended a nerve-wracking month in which Schutze had been rushed to a local hospital a few days before his verdict was originally scheduled to be delivered on June 2. Given his advanced age, one could not dismiss the possibility that the efforts over the past years might all have been for naught. I fully realize that such outcomes should be considered an occupational hazard, but that does not eliminate the frustration and anger at the missed opportunities.

Thus my immediate association was that of the case of Kosice (Hungarian-occupied Slovakia) police officer Laszlo Csatary, a notorious sadist who played a key role in the deportation of more than 15,000 Jews to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. He had been sentenced to death in absentia in 1948 in Czechoslovakia, but by then he had escaped to Canada. After the Canadians stripped him of his Canadian citizenship in 1994, he voluntarily left the country and ostensibly disappeared, but we were able to find him in Budapest 17 years later. The Hungarians were in no rush to prosecute him, and finally indicted him only after extensive international media exposure, but he died several days before his trial was scheduled to open. He would have been the first Hungarian collaborator successfully prosecuted and convicted since Hungary made the transition to democracy, so his untimely death was particularly upsetting.

After Schutze was hospitalized, an Israeli filmmaker who is preparing a documentary on the recent trials being held in Germany suggested to me that perhaps I should pray a little harder in his case. She obviously had heard a joke I often relate in lectures and interviews, that I am the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazis (only those who can be brought to trial). In fact, I actually did so, although I certainly can’t validate that my prayers affected the positive result.

When Schutz appeared in court last Monday, we all breathed a sigh of relief and listened carefully to his lawyer’s defense strategy, which was basically composed of two parts. One was to cast doubt on Schutze’s identification as the S.S. guard in Sachsenhausen by that name. (There were several other persons with the same name from the same town.) The second was a litany of all the usual arguments against the “belated trials,” the passage of decades since the crimes, the advanced age of the defendant, his ostensibly minor role (“small cog” argument) in the camp, and the fact that more culpable criminals were not held accountable. Schutze was then given an opportunity to address the court, but instead of arousing any sympathy, he was pathetic, claiming that he had no idea why he was put on trial and claiming to have been a law-abiding citizen all his life.

Thus the main drama was to take place the next day, Tuesday, when Judge Udo Lechtermann would deliver his verdict.

One could sense the tension as the judge entered the courtroom, and everyone stood up, but the uncertainty as to the verdict dissipated quite quickly as the judge announced that Schutze had been sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum sentence for the offenses he committed. He referred to the documents which proved that he served in Sachsenhausen, including for example a letter written by his parents to friends that their son was “with the S.S. in Oranienberg,” the site of the concentration camp. He then presented a concise summary of the horrific crimes committed there, identifying the various groups of victims: Jews, Roma, homosexuals, socialists and other opponents of the Nazi regime – who were among the estimated 55,000 victims executed by experiments, forced labor, shooting, and inhumane conditions of hunger and disease, noting the importance of the role played by S.S. guards like Schutze.

So little justice has been achieved in Germany when it comes to Nazi crimes, and so many important figures in the implementation of the Final Solution have escaped punishment, that there are many people who scoff at victories like the one in this case. My approach is that even minimal justice is better than no justice. Anyone who saw the faces of the relatives of the victims of Sachsenhausen (who under German law can join the prosecution) when Schutze was convicted, will understand that the closure they felt when he was convicted is priceless. And believe it or not, according to Sachsenhausen memorial director Dr. Astrid Ley, quite a bit of new information about the history of the camp was revealed during the course of the trial. The German lawyers like the indefatigable Thomas Walter, who made these “belated trials” possible deserve our admiration and gratitude.

In closing, I cannot conclude without pointing to a very sore point. Not a single Israeli official was present at the verdict, nor was there a single Israeli journalist, even though several media outlets have correspondents stationed in Germany. Apparently, for them, anything less than an Eichmann or a Mengele is of no interest.

About the Author
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

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