Should Germany Prosecute the Few Surviving Nazis?Historians in the News
tags: Nazis, war crimes, book reviews
David Motadel is an Associate Professor of History at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, which was awarded the Fraenkel Prize. (December 2021)
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by Philippe Sands
Knopf, 417 pp., $30.00
by Ronen Steinke, translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe, with a foreword by Andreas Vosskuhle
Indiana University Press, 205 pp., $90.00; $30.00 (paper)
In the summer of 2020 a court in Hamburg found Bruno Dey, a ninety-three-year-old former member of the SS Totenkopfsturmbann (Death’s Head Battalion) and a guard at Stutthof concentration camp, near Gdańsk, from August 1944 to April 1945, guilty on 5,232 counts of being an accessory to murder. The testimonies of survivors of the camp gave a glimpse into hell. It was normal to see the corpses of those who had died of hunger, exhaustion, and violence lying in the open, Marek Dunin-Wąsowicz told the court. Another witness, Abraham Koryski, spoke of the sadistic “shows” that the SS staged in front of the prisoners; in one such spectacle, a son was forced to beat his father to death. Judy Meisel recounted how she and her mother stood naked in a line leading to the gas chamber: “When I saw the chance to run back to the barracks, my mother urged me to run. I had to leave her behind.” It was the last time she saw her. Dey, who was seventeen when he joined the SS and became a guard at Stutthof, denied the charges against him. He gave a horrific account of his time there, recalling inmates being led to the gas chamber, their screams inside, their desperate banging on its door. Dey was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Trials like this are increasingly uncommon today. Most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust have passed away, but German courts still have an opportunity to prosecute those who remain alive. It is the final chapter in the country’s long and not very successful history of ensuring justice for their victims.
In the chaos that followed the end of World War II, as millions of refugees, returning soldiers, and liberated slave laborers roamed across Europe, it was relatively easy for Nazi criminals to flee abroad. Many escaped from Germany via the legendary “Ratline,” a route that ran across the Alps into the valleys of South Tyrol. In Italy, forged papers were easy to obtain from criminal gangs and former Fascist functionaries. The fugitives also often received help from the Red Cross, which, overwhelmed and operating under a liberal policy of humanitarian aid, issued travel documents without asking too many questions. The Vatican’s relief committee was also deeply involved in the escape route; willing to assist any enemy of communism, it offered shelter, papers, and safe passage to Latin America, North Africa, and the Middle East. The list of those who eluded their pursuers this way is long. It includes Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated the transport of Jews to the extermination camps; the Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele; Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibór and Treblinka; Klaus Barbie, Lyon’s sadistic Gestapo chief; Walter Rauff, architect of the gas van; and Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga.”
Philippe Sands’s The Ratline traces the escape of the Austrian SS-Brigadeführer Otto Wächter. During the war years, Wächter was governor of Kraków in occupied Poland, where he set up the ghetto, and later governor of Galicia, based in Lemberg (Lviv), where he was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Under his governorship, more than 525,000 Galicians lost their lives. The region’s Jewish population was almost completely exterminated. (Among the victims were many members of Sands’s family.)
Sands depicts a grim world of mass violence that is often difficult to comprehend. “Tomorrow, I have to have 50 Poles publicly shot,” Wächter wrote casually in a letter to his wife, Charlotte, in late 1939. At the same time, the couple had an intense social life, hosting dinner parties, enjoying classical music concerts, and going on extravagant shopping trips. Wächter, a highly educated lawyer and veteran member of the Nazi Party, and his wife, who shared his ideological fanaticism and taste for high culture (and tolerated his womanizing), were prominent members of Nazi high society. They cultivated good relations with his superior, Hans Frank, the governor-general of German-occupied Poland, with whom they regularly played chess, and Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who visited occasionally.