In Going After Nazi Criminals, Europe Is Still Divided

Clearly, the Communist domination of countries like Hungary prevented the soul-searching necessary to enable any meaningful acknowledgment of local guilt and complicity.

This past year, for the first time in a decade, two trials of Nazi war criminals indicted on criminal charges - with the defendants present and in reasonable health - were concluded in two different European countries. The first to be completed (in May 2011 ) was that of Ivan Demjanjuk, who was tried in Germany for his role as an armed SS guard in the Sobibor death camp, where approximately 250,000 Jews were murdered during the years 1942-1943. The second, which took place in Hungary and was concluded in July, was that of local gendarmerie lieutenant Sandor Kepiro, who was charged for his role in the massacre of 3,300 civilians in the Serbian city of Novi Sad and its vicinity in the latter half of January 1942. (This trial was preceded by an unsuccessful libel suit Kepiro initiated against me for exposing his participation in the massacres.)

On the surface, there are several noticeable differences between the two cases. Most significant is the difference in rank of the accused. While Kepiro, a lawyer, was an officer, and even acknowledged that he was personally responsible for the roundup of civilians in a specific area of Novi Sad on January 23, Demjanjuk was a guard who only received orders. Another significant difference between the cases was the amount and specificity of evidence of the crimes alleged to have been committed by the accused available to the prosecutors to present to the court.

In Hungary, Chief Prosecutor Zsolt Falvi was able to name six persons who were murdered by Kepiro's men during the roundups in Novi Sad and to submit evidence regarding a truckload of 30 arrested persons, whom Kepiro reportedly sent directly to the Danube River to be shot, instead of to a collection point in the city center, where their cases would have been reviewed by Hungarian officers. In theory, he also could have pointed to the many dozens of people who were arrested by Kepiro's subordinates and subsequently murdered by the Hungarian forces at the Danube.

In Demjanjuk's case, on the other hand, no evidence of any specific crimes was presented to the court aside from the fact of his service as an armed guard at the death camp. In fact, the indictment was unprecedented in German legal history, since it was the first time ever that a Nazi war criminal was charged in the Federal Republic without any evidence of a specific crime against an identifiable victim, a decision that reflected a far more historically realistic approach to the cases of men who served in camps like Sobibor than had previously been applied in German courts.

Aside from these differences, however, there were several significant similarities between the two cases that strongly influenced their outcome. The first was the fact that both defendants had previously been convicted in legal proceedings connected to the crimes, but not for these specific charges. Demjanjuk had been found guilty of immigration and naturalization violations in the United States, where Holocaust perpetrators could not be put on trial for their crimes since they had been committed outside the country and not against American citizens. He was also convicted in Israel, but for membership in a Nazi organization, not for mass murder in Sobibor. Kepiro was convicted in Hungary in January 1944 for violating orders by carrying out an unauthorized operation, not for the murder of civilians. Also in both cases, prosecutors were aided by the fact that during the course of the proceedings, critical evidence was obtained that made it possible to mount a case many decades after the fact, even without any living witnesses.

Based on evidence alone, it would appear that the likelihood of Kepiro's being convicted was much higher than that of Demjanjuk. Yet ultimately, it was Demjanjuk who was convicted in May (he died last month ), whereas Kepiro was acquitted last July. In this respect, one of the most critical elements of each trial was its venue, and the extent of political will, in Germany and Hungary, respectively, to bring elderly Nazi war criminals to trial.

And in fact, the contrast between the two countries in this regard was patently obvious. Whereas Germany could easily have ignored the case of Demjanjuk, who was neither German nor Volksdeutsche, and had no current ties to Germany, but instead made a determined effort to try him in Munich (his port of embarkation for America ) the Hungarians' reluctance to prosecute Kepiro was clearly evident from the almost five years it took them to put him on trial, despite his advanced age and the strong possibility he might elude justice due to infirmity. (In fact, he died last September, less than two months after the trial ended. ) And his acquittal by Judge Bela Varga, who dismissed all the evidence from 1944 without taking into consideration that it was the Nazis who pressured the Hungarians to cancel Kepiro's original conviction, also underscores this reality. In fact, it is highly likely that if not for the fact that Hungary assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union in January 2011, and was under harsh criticism for legislative initiatives considered anti-democratic by the EU, its right-wing government would never have even allowed Kepiro to be put on trial.

These two cases clearly reflect the significant gap that persists between Eastern and Western Europe in dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath. Clearly, the communist domination of countries like Hungary prevented the soul-searching necessary to enable any meaningful acknowledgment and confrontation with local guilt and complicity. Unfortunately, by the time such a process will, if ever, take place it will be too late to hold any of the local perpetrators accountable, and thus an opportunity to achieve a measure of justice, one of the most important dimensions of reconciliation, will have been squandered irrevocably.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel office. His most recent book is "Operation Last Chance: One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice" (Palgrave Macmillan ).