Even Little Fish Bite

Even Little Fish Bite

While the GDR (East Germany), just like Czechoslovakia, did not allow open discussion, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) went through an unprecedented process of reflection and repentance. Despite this, or perhaps rather because of this, it is shocking that of the approximately six and a half thousand guards who served in the Auschwitz concentration camp, only some forty-three were brought before the courts in West Germany. It was only this year that the “Auschwitz Accountant” Oskar Gröning found himself on the defendant’s bench. In mid-July this year this ninety-three-year-old was sentenced to four years imprisonment for participating in three hundred thousand cases of murder.

The first criminal proceedings against common Nazi murderers in Germany took place in 1947/8 in the American occupation zone. The defendants were twenty-four officers of the Einsatzgruppen; that is SS units which behind the eastern front murdered Jews and Soviet officials in the years before the “invention” of the gas chambers. Twelve American military tribunals sentenced them to long prison terms or to be executed by hanging. Several of them were freed as early as 1952 due to blanket amnesties under Adenauer’s government.

Another ten former members of the Einsatzgruppen were imprisoned in 1958 and in that same year an office to systematically prosecute Nazi criminals was established in Swabia’s Ludwigsburg. Another large trial took place in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1965, with twenty-eight Auschwitz guards being given long prison sentences.

Among those not tried was for example Kurt Juraszek, who had been an SS-Unterscharführer serving in the Auschwitz pharmacy. In the 1970s he was investigated by the Frankfurt state prosecutor, who however could not exclude the possibility that Zyklon B he dispensed had been used in line with its original purpose, purely for delousing clothing. In 1975 the prosecution of thirteen lorry drivers in Auschwitz was dropped, as they were considered to have been only “little fish”.

In the meantime however justice both in Germany and the whole of the western world underwent a paradigm shift. In the 1960s and 1970s only guards were judged, and that for specific crimes which could be backed up by witnesses. For obvious reasons there were not many of these surviving and in many cases it was difficult to attribute crimes to specific SS members.

In recent decades people have been prosecuted even for indirect participation in genocide, which also covers serving in places where these crimes took place even if the activity was not directly connected to the murders. Thus justice finally caught up even with Gröning, even if it was seventy years after the war.

More on the punishment of wartime and post-war criminals can be found here and here.

text: Jaroslav Ostrčilík
photo: Ronny Hartmann / EPA