Many people believe it no longer matters if alleged Nazi era criminals – most of them now in their eighties or nineties – are brought to trial. “It was a long time ago”, “Let them be”, “They are too old”. But for many others – survivors of the concentration camps, the descendants of victims, and ordinary people with a sense of what is right – justice must be seen to be done.
The Shoah or Holocaust was a crime against humanity without historical parallel, although in sheer scale it was eclipsed by the horrific predations of Stalin, whose Great Terror and forced famines killed more than 40 million people, and Mao Zedong, whose Great Leap Forward killed more than 45 million people.
But the issue is not (or is not simply) one of scale, but of genocide: the systematic murder of people for psychotic political motives. And there’s the rub – no one wants to talk about genocide in any other historical context than the Third Reich. Or, at least, the genocide has to take place beyond the pale of “civilization”. Genocide in Armenia, or Cambodia, or Guatemala, or Bosnia, or Rwanda, is something other – “a series of unfortunate circumstances” that are condemned only when the perpetrators are not strategic political or economic partners of powerful members of the so-called “international community”.
In 2002 the International Criminal Court was set up to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. To date, the ICC Prosecutor has opened investigations into eight situations in Africa: the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Uganda; the Central African Republic; Darfur, Sudan; the Republic of Kenya; the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya; the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
A number of International Criminal Tribunals are also at work e.g. former Yugoslavia (since 1993), for Rwanda (since 1994), and Bangladesh (since 2009). As a measure of how slowly these tribunals work, in the case of former Yugoslavia, final indictments were issued in December 2004. The Tribunal was aiming to complete all trials by the end of 2012 and all appeals by 2015, with the exception of Radovan Karadžic whose trial is expected to end in 2014, and Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadžic who were only recently arrested.
Now, prosecutors in Germany have announced the arrest of three men suspected of being former SS guards at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where more than one million people were killed. The three men remanded in custody are aged 88, 92 and 94 and have been living in the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg. The men are indicted for serving at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944.
For more than 60 years German courts only prosecuted Nazi war criminals if evidence suggested they had personally committed atrocities. But in 2011 a Munich court sentenced John Demjanjuk to five years in prison for complicity in the extermination of Jews at the Sobibor camp, where he was a guard, establishing that all former camp guards can be tried. This landmark ruling has led to a renewed drive to bring to justice the last surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust.
- So that the gravity of the horrendous crimes perpetrated on others is not diminished or brushed aside.
- So that those who carry out such acts in future realize that justice will be done.
- So that the spectrum of impunity is narrowed: if greater crimes are prosecuted, there is more chance that lesser crimes will be.
Finally, and most importantly, it is a matter of public education. In all genocides, it is the complicity of ordinary people that enables crimes to be committed, and it is the brutality of ordinary people that enables them to be carried out. In short, we are all responsible and we are all accountable.
As for the Nazis, assuming that they are guilty, it is not a question of gloating over the fate of despicable old men who might be left to die in peace. As Elie Wiesel has tirelessly reiterated, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”