The recent death of an elderly German in the small Bavarian town of Coburg is hardly newsworthy, but the demise of Franz Perlinger, several days after celebrating his 99th birthday, is actually more significant than most people could imagine. Had Perlinger not died two weeks ago, he was scheduled to be put on trial this coming October for accessory to murder in the cases of thousands of inmates in the women’s and the much smaller men’s camp of the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany, to which the Nazis deported more than 130,000, mostly female Polish and Soviet political prisoners.
The case against Perlinger would have been the eighth trial conducted in the wake of a dramatic change in German prosecution policy vis-à-vis Holocaust perpetrators, implemented in 2008. Until then, in order to convict a Nazi criminal, the prosecution would have had to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime against a specific victim, an almost impossible challenge so many years after the crime. But based on the fact that the death camps (those with either gas chambers – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Majdanek – or gas vans – Chelmno) were in effect “death factories,” government prosecutors were persuaded that anyone who served there could be held responsible for the murders and hence be prosecuted for “accessory to murder,” based on service alone, which could be proven by documents. And thus the campaign to bring to justice guards in death camps, or camps with very high mortality rates was launched regardless of the age of the suspects, who all were already at least in their nineties.
This dramatic change in German policy, spearheaded by prosecutors Thomas Walther and Kirsten Goetze, gave a new lease on life to the efforts to hold Nazi perpetrators accountable. Germany is currently the only country that has achieved multiple convictions of Holocaust criminals during the past decade and a half. This is a welcome development, but having noted this important achievement, it is important to point out several serious flaws in the handling of these cases, which Perlinger’s “premature” death helps highlight.
So far, all of the defendants whose trials had been completed have been convicted, and only one had to be stopped for health reasons. (The case of Johannes Rehbogen who served as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp was suspended because his health deteriorated and he was no longer able to follow the trial.) Unpublicized, however, is the fact that between five and seven cases had to be stopped for health reasons, after indictments had been submitted against the suspects.
One would imagine that given the advanced age of both the criminals and the survivors, a “fast track” would be created for these trials, but unfortunately that has not been the case. Thus instead of being exposed, prosecuted, and convicted for his role as an SS guard at Ravensbruck, Perlinger passed away in relative tranquility that he did not deserve.
The German justice system should have found a way to expedite these cases. In Perlinger’s case, for example, the historian in his case took more than three years to complete the important historical report on the crimes committed in the camp. In addition, the opening date of his trial was scheduled more than a year after he was charged, and the result is not at all surprising. We have already been working on the case for about half a year, and there were still eight months to go before the trial even opened!!
Another problem relates to failure of the German justice system to add additional staff to the Zentrale Stelle (the federal agency that vets each case of a Nazi perpetrator to decide whether the cases have validity and should be brought to trial), to enable the handling of far more cases, since the change in prosecution policy made it possible to prosecute many more persons than was the case previously.
A third problem is the choice of prosecutors. After a case is approved for trial by the experts of the Zentrale Stelle, the file is sent to a prosecutor near the residence of the defendant. None of these prosecutors, or even some of the attorneys representing the survivor witnesses and co-plaintiffs have any experience (!) handling Nazi perpetrator cases. So while this has some logic in dealing with the logistics of the trial, such as the appearances of the defendants, it often results in serious mistakes. One such example was of a witness, who claimed he was born in Stutthof and that his mother had been tattooed there when inmates of Stuttof did not have numbers tattooed on their arms.
Time is obviously running out, and soon it will no longer be possible to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice. We therefore urge the German authorities to take whatever measures possible to expedite these cases promptly, in order to maximize justice.