Prosecuting Nazis: A Question of Justice Versus Family

The 'Last Chance' campaign to hunt out Nazi war criminals in Germany starts this week. For most, it might seem a just and worthy operation. But for Germans, it’s not so clear cut.

Almost 70 years after the Nuremberg trials, Nazi war criminals are still being prosecuted, and the hunt for living Nazis relentlessly continues.

Tomorrow, the Simon Wiesenthal Center will launch “Operation Last Chance II”, a campaign to forage for surviving Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice before they die. Yet again, we are confronted with a dilemma: Should we prosecute aging Nazis for their historic crimes, or let them live their final few years in peace?

As a German young-adult, born among the second generation after World War Two, I notice a general understanding and willingness among my peers for this drive to root out the last bad weeds of German society. We want Nazis and their sympathizers to pay for their crimes, and support this renewed effort to prosecute them.

My parents’ generation, on the other hand, who fought for the removal of all remnants of Nazism from social and political life in the 1960s and 70s using more dramatic means than the justice system, ranging from Red Army Faction terrorism to hippie love for the political left, have surprisingly become more understanding of their parents’ war generation.

I have been confronted with this issue in many instances of my life. Both in the formal education system and at home we discussed the past, but weren’t encouraged to ask questions. ("Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.") In school, we were taught the cold facts through textbooks with few pictures - one of Germany's tactics to convey the information without horrifying its children and turning them against their own families and the nation itself.

At home, the topic is not taboo, but the answers almost seem synchronized across the nation - our parents’ generation doesn’t really know what their parents’ involvement was (or so they claim), and our grandparents, if confronted about it at all, will go on about the horrors of Dresden whilst circumventing the actual question. The internet may serve as a challenge to the German education system's tactics, but we are not yet at a stage where we have a transparent understanding of our past, due to the lack of encouragement at home coupled with the lack of encouragement in public.

Despite the distance created through the method chosen to convey facts about the genocide, a child born 70 years after World War Two is still reminded of his or her country’s history on a daily basis – whether it be on a visit to his grandparents’ house, a motorway sign indicating the next exit to Bergen Belsen, or when European royalty dress up as Nazi officers to play a joke for the media.

Yet, because of this distance between our own families’ history and reality, and because few questions are ever answered truly, there is this silent belief - and hope - that members of our own family could not possibly have been directly involved in the genocide. After all, we would know about such a defining aspect in our own families’ past, right? Being educated in one of the most pacifist and democratic countries in the world, it is hard to imagine that Hitler and his policies were welcomed in our own country in the first place. To imagine that our own grandparents had a direct role surpasses most children's imagination. It simply seems impossible.

The dilemma of prosecuting or not prosecuting some of the last genocide perpetrators may seem not a dilemma at all to many outside Germany, but inside the country, this justice dilemma creates serious challenges on the level of the state, the family and the individual.

On a state level, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is frantically trying to uphold and build Germany’s post-war identity as a pacifist and loyal friend to all nations. This is not only challenged by Germany´s history, but also by various European recipients of Germany´s proposed austerity measures. Being constantly reminded of Germany´s past through ongoing trials and prosecutions of Nazi war criminals does not help the state seem credible in times of crisis when Merkel tries to “lead” Europe.

On a family level, burying the past is necessary for family cohesion and unity. The war generation is plagued with the fear of rejection. They worry that my generation won’t understand the circumstances that lead them to elect Hitler, the threats to families who opposed the regime, or the danger of speaking out against the genocide. While my generation generally understands this fear, we nevertheless remind ourselves of those few brave individuals who did speak out against Hitler, and paid for it with their lives.

On an individual level, it is feared that prosecutions of war criminals today will inflict guilt on an innocent generation, creating psychological problems such as misplaced shame.

“Operation Last Chance II” may be the last time Germany is confronted with this dilemma, as genocide perpetrators slowly die off. The way ordinary Germans respond to this campaign will boil down to the country’s education system and whether families encourage discussion both in public and at the dinner table. The relative emotional distance to the subject created through Holocaust education tends to push young Germans to support prosecutions. But had they been educated to know their families’ exact involvement, these tendencies might have been different. For when it comes down to justice versus family who doesn’t think twice?


Katja Knoechelmann has a BA in Government and an MA in Counterterrorism and Homeland Security from the IDC in Herzliya, Israel. She is currently completing an MSc in International Development from the London School of Economics and is the 2011 Jean-Pictet world champion in International Humanitarian Law.

AP