It is a cause for shame that the Nazi murderer Alois Brunner never faced public trial. Now he is dead. Yet that should not mean abandoning the indictment of others who have committed horrendous crimes.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, believes Brunner died four years ago in Syria. A Nazi SS officer, Brunner was accused of deporting more than 128,000 Jews to their death during World War II. Many people, including the Israeli and Syrian secret services long knew where he lived and over the years several newspapers and magazines carried stories about his post-war life.
One of Adolf Eichmann’s henchmen, from June 1943 until the liberation of France, Brunner waged an unmitigated campaign of terror in the south of France. After the war, owing to mistaken identity, he avoided capture and fled to Syria in the 1950s where he lived under the name Georg Fischer and was protected by successive military regimes. The Syrian government repeatedly lied about harbouring him.
Brunner was twice sentenced to death in absentia in the 1950s; one of those convictions was in France in 1954. In August 1987 Interpol issued a “Red Notice” against him: identification and location with a view to arrest and extradition. On 2 March 2001, in absentia he was once again found guilty by a French court for crimes against humanity, including the arrest and deportation of 345 orphans from the Paris region (which had not been judged in the earlier trials). He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
As the last remaining Nazis from World War II approach the end of their lives, some people question if it is worthwhile pursuing them. Their crimes took place more than 60 years ago; it is difficult to gather evidence that will secure a conviction; and both the accused and the accusers might die before the legal process was complete. Finding former Nazis and prosecuting them is costly and such resources might be better spent – even today – on counselling and financial aid for survivors and their families. On the other hand, the perpetrators of such terrible crimes ought rightly to be held to account if justice means accountability.
There are larger questions. Since 1945 crimes against humanity have taken place in many countries of the world. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia there were concentration camps. In Latin America under the military dictators there were death squads and torture centres. And who has forgotten the brutalities that took place in the Soviet Union, China, Iran, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria? Impunity runs riot. Relinquishing the pursuit of Nazi criminals signals that the leaders and functionaries of any regime – dictator or camp guard, civil servant or clerk – can get away with murder.
But retribution should not be confused with revenge. Justice and moral revulsion do not prevent repetition. There is no “Never again!” But shame, disgust, and opprobrium can be powerful lessons for those who do not know what happened and equally cathartic for those who have suffered. In a just society, forgetting is not an option and the pursuit and trial of the accused are mandatory.
As Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, wrote in Inherit the Truth 1939-1945:
“The millions who were murdered rely on those survivors to bear witness to their existence… Alas, it has once more become desperately important today to remind ourselves how precariously thin the dividing line is between human integrity and barbarism.”