Efraim Zuroff
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Elderly Nazis and ‘misplaced sympathy syndrome’

Don't worry about the frail old men who are finally being tried for crimes they committed when they weren't frail or old; it's their victims who need your compassion
John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom. (AP/Matthias Schrader)
John Demjanjuk in a Munich courtroom. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

The first three months of 2021 have seen an unusually large number of legal measures taken in the cases of Nazi war criminals. Thus, for example, two new indictments were filed in Germany against Holocaust perpetrators. One was against Irmgard Furchner, who served, from June 1, 1943 until April 1, 1945, as the secretary of Stutthof commandant Paul Werner Hoppe, and is accused of complicity in the murder of 11,430 inmates. Charges have also been filed against a male whose initials are N.N. (in Germany, suspects are not publicly identified, in most cases, until the trial begins). He reportedly served as a guard from January 20, 1942 until August 31, 1944 and from December 6, 1944 until February 18, 1945, at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, and is accused of complicity in the murder of 3,518 inmates. A third case was the successful deportation by the United States to Germany of Friedrich Karl Berger, who served as an armed guard at the Meppen sub-camp of the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.

Given the fact that we marked the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in January, and will no doubt mark the 80th anniversary of “Operation Barbarossa,” the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the initiation of the implementation of the systematic mass murder of European Jewry, in June, the ongoing efforts to hold these Holocaust perpetrators accountable have aroused considerable media attention. There are three reasons why that is so:

  • The first is because of the age of the defendants. Furchner is 95, as is Berger, and N.N. is, believe it or not, 100 years old. When and where was a 100-year-old, or even a spry 95-year-old, last put on trial?
  • Second is the fact that none of these individuals had a particularly prominent role in Holocaust crimes. If, for example, an arch Nazi criminal who until now had not been caught and prosecuted, like Mengele, for example, had suddenly been apprehended, putting him on trial, even if he were older than 100 (assuming that he was healthy enough to understand the proceedings), would have been taken for granted. That is obviously not the case, however, as far as these persons are concerned.
  • The third reason is that they are being prosecuted in the wake of a very dramatic change in German prosecution policy vis-à-vis Holocaust perpetrators. For several decades, until about 2008, in order to convict a suspected Nazi war criminal in Germany, the prosecution had to prove that the defendant had committed a specific crime against a specific victim and had done so motivated by racial hatred, a requirement which is virtually impossible to achieve at this point in time. That requirement was dropped some 12 years ago, however, when Ivan Demjanjuk was tried in Germany for “accessory to murder,” based solely on his service at the Sobibor death camp. His conviction in Munich in May 2011 paved the way for four additional cases, of men who served in Auschwitz and Stutthof.

The lack of evidence of a specific crime committed by these defendants, and the fact that they were quite young when they served the Third Reich, has prompted a measure of ambivalence and skepticism about these belated trials. Thus, for example, in the wake of Berger’s deportation to Germany, Tennessee resident and New York Times contributing opinion writer Margaret Renkl wrote that the fact that Berger, who also was a resident of (Oak Ridge) Tennessee, had “lived a good life, causing no trouble, exacting no harm — impels us into an uncomfortable gray area… No punishment can possibly restore to life the people who died in a concentration camp that Mr. Berger helped to guard…But sending him to prison at the age of 95 for what he did as a teenager also seems wrong.”

My impression is that Renkl’s view is shared by many people who suffer from a problem that I call “misplaced sympathy syndrome.” Instead of primarily focusing on the fate of Berger’s victims, whose lives were terminated cruelly for no fault of their own by a murderous regime consumed by senseless hatred/anti-Semitism, and who were thus denied the opportunity that Berger had to live a full life, marry, raise a family, and ensure his own continuity, Renkl focuses on the perpetrator, whose elderly age at this time evokes a measure of her sympathy.

But Berger was not a guard at the Meppen concentration camp at age 95; he was there as a young man, full of vigor and energy, which he utilized to carry out his despicable task. Nor does Renkl mention the families of the victims, for whom the legal measures being currently taken against such persons afford a measure of closure, which, even at this late date, affords them some comfort.

Germany’s record in prosecuting Holocaust perpetrators has been extremely flawed for many years, and for many reasons, which deserve separate treatment, but the belated trials currently under way and those to be held in the immediate future are extremely valuable and a worthy initiative, which deserves our support, especially in these times of increased anti-Semitism and rampant Holocaust denial and distortion.

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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