This past Friday, Herbert Wahler celebrated his 100th birthday. Quite an achievement for a German, who spent a significant part of World War II serving on the Eastern front in Ukraine. Yet upon closer examination of Wahler’s service record, it’s not that surprising, since, for a significant part of the conflict, Wahler was not dodging bullets shot at him by Red Army soldiers, but rather contributing to the efforts of Einsatzgruppe C to mass murder innocent Jews and other “enemies of the Reich.”
Einsatzgruppe C was one of the four special killing squads, labeled A, B, C, and D, the Nazis sent in June 1941, along with the Wehrmacht troops invading the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, to begin the mass murder of Jews, even before the formal decree of the Final Solution was officially adopted at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. They spread out over the entire territory, with A responsible for the former Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; B in charge in Belarus; C active in central Ukraine and D in southern Ukraine. In the course of 1941-1943, these units, which numbered approximately 3,000 men, with assistance from members of the Wehrmacht, German police units, and local collaborators, were responsible for the mass murder by shooting of approximately 2 million persons, among them 1.3 million Jews.
Wahler served initially in a Waffen-S.S. unit, which in late July 1941 was assigned to Einsatzgruppen C. The unit went from place to place murdering tens of thousands of innocent civilians, most of whom were Jewish, and by the end of October 1941 had killed an estimated 78,000 people, and carried out the largest mass murder in the history of the Holocaust, the September 29-30 massacre of 33,771 Jews in Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Despite the extremely important role played by the Einsatzgruppen in the Holocaust, relatively few of those who carried out the murders were brought to justice. The Americans conducted a trial of 24 of the senior leaders of the units, and two-thirds of the defendants were sentenced to death (14) or life imprisonment (2), but only four men were executed. All the others who were convicted had their sentences reduced. (Four others were tried and executed by other countries.) Only about 100 men were subsequently indicted in West Germany, a few were convicted and given mild sentences, and none were executed.
Given those circumstances, I was expecting that in the wake of the dramatic change a decade ago in German prosecution policy vis-à-vis Nazi war criminals, which made it possible to convict those who served in death camps and/or camps with gas chambers or gas vans, or camps with a high mortality rate, based on service alone (as opposed to the previous requirement of proving a specific crime against a specific victim), it would now be possible to convict people who served in the Einsatzgruppen. In fact, shortly after the Demjanjuk verdict, I met in 2011 with the directors of the Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes (the federal German agency which initiates Nazi war crimes investigations) to discuss the issue, and they confirmed that indeed they had adopted that policy.
That did not happen, however, so three years later, in the fall of 2014, I checked the Weisenthal Center archives for all the names of people who served in the Einsatzgruppen, for whom we had a date of birth. We had a total of 1,293 names (out of about 2,950) of those who served in A, B, C, or D, of which we had dates of birth for 1,069. Of those, 80 people, 76 men and four women, were born in 1920 or later. On September 1, 20104, I sent that list, which included Herbert Wahler’s name, to the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas and the Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maiziere. It took the German authorities 17 months to check the list, which they informed me included three people alive in Germany, all of whom had served in Einsatzgruppe C.
I received the news with a mixture of joy and trepidation. Joy that at least three were alive, trepidation that they might not live long enough to be prosecuted – which is why I sometimes find myself praying for the good health of Nazis who might be prosecuted). In the meantime, my fears turned out to be well-founded and Kurt Gosdek and Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Hoffmeister have already died without being brought to justice. Although Wahler has admitted in media interviews that he was in Kyiv during the massacre, the prosecutor in Kassel closed his case, probably because Wahler claims that he was a medic, leaving unanswered the question of who it was he was assisting, the perpetrators or the victims.
So last Friday, a demonstration was held in front of Wahler’s house in Meslungen by members of the Dokumentartheaters Berlin and the AK Angreifbare Traditionspflege, and members of the Liberal Jewish community in nearby Felsberg to demand that justice be served. My message to them, which was read at the demonstration, was simple:
“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the murderers and their accomplices. And old age should not afford protection for merciless killers.
Herbert Wahler may think that “What has been, has been, it’s over,” as he told the ARD journalists from Kontraste, but as long as any of the men and women from the Einsatzgruppen, death’s head units, and anyone who served in the concentration camps where so many innocent human beings were murdered are alive, they cannot be allowed to live their lives in peace and tranquility. That is a privilege they denied their victims.
They must be held accountable! Even if they were not officers or did not have high ranks. In death squads and death camps, there is no such thing as “a small cog.” It’s the “small cogs,” who ensured the implementation of the “Final Solution,” and they must be held accountable.”