(First published in The Dominion Post, February 19.)
Former SS sergeant Reinhold Hanning is on trial in Germany for his involvement in the deaths of 170,000 people at Auschwitz. He is reportedly hard of hearing and in poor health. He is 94.His trial will be followed by that of Hubert Zafke, who is alleged to have been a paramedic at the same concentration camp. Zafke is 95 and suffers from dementia.
What will these trials achieve? That’s what I ask myself when I read of feeble old men being called to account for things that happened more than 70 years ago.Any punishment that might be meted out to them at this stage in their lives can only be symbolic. What, then, is the purpose? And why have charges been brought against them when they are probably past the point of being able to defend themselves?
I discussed this recently with a Jewish friend. We agreed that these prosecutions are largely driven by Germany’s desire to acknowledge its guilt for the Nazi extermination camps. Beyond that point, our discussion was inconclusive.For me, there remains a nagging feeling that these proceedings almost qualify for the description of show trials.
But if they are indeed show trials, what do they show? That the Nazi regime exterminated innocent human beings on an unprecedented scale? We know that already.Is the purpose, then, to prove that Germany is no longer the country that it was under Hitler? We know that, too. Germany has spent much of the past seven decades re-establishing its credentials as a civilised, humane country.
Perhaps the rationale is simply that justice demands that these men be punished, even after all this time. But such punishment seems pointless, even vindictive, at this stage in their lives.Besides, Zafke has served a three-year prison term already. He was convicted and sentenced by a Polish court after the war for being a member of the SS.
This time he faces trial on more specific charges: namely, that as a para-medic at Auschwitz he was party to the murders of 3681 people who went to the gas chambers while he was on duty.It’s not clear whether he’s alleged to have been actively involved in their extermination. All that’s necessary, it seems, is for the prosecution to prove that men like Zafke and Hanning were cogs in the Nazi extermination machine, and therefore culpable.
But even if that’s proved, as seems likely, surely there are problems here too.For one thing, it can be argued that all of Germany was complicit in the war crimes committed by the Nazi regime.
The German people allowed Hitler and his murderous accomplices to take power. They stood by and did nothing as the Nazis ramped up their persecution of the Jews.There was no secret about the Nazi agenda – it was clear for all to see. The existence of extermination camps may not have been public knowledge, but the camps were the logical, ultimate conclusion of Nazi anti-semitism, which the German people appeared to condone. Arguably, that made all of them accessories in the murder of six million Jews.
Why, then, select for symbolic punishment those whom the records show were physically present when the gas was turned on? They were just the front end of an evil ideology that inexplicably captured an entire country.And here’s another thing. How realistic is it to now demand that individuals such as Zafke and Hanning should have taken a moral stand and refused orders to work in places like Auschwitz?
They were simply going along with something their countrymen appeared to endorse. They were caught up in a murderous national hysteria.Besides, they would very likely have been shot for refusing to obey orders. How many of us can say that in a similar position, we would have put our lives on the line to save others?
The expectation seems to be that these men should have shown the moral courage of martyrs. That’s an extraordinarily high demand to make of ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances.I have been to Auschwitz. It’s impossible to grasp the enormity of what went on there.
I entirely understand the sentiments of the Auschwitz victim’s grandson who was reported as saying he would cheerfully put a rope around Hanning’s neck. For him, it’s deeply personal.But the men primarily responsible for the extermination of Europe’s Jewry have long since been brought to justice. Perhaps it’s time to finally close the door on the ghastliest episode in 20th century history.