Why We Must Put Nazis in Their Nineties on Trial

It's not tawdry or vengeful to force elderly men to face belated justice. Even at this late hour, Europe must fulfil its duty to the victims of the Holocaust - and the historical record

Liam Hoare
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93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey in court in Hamburg accused of aiding and abetting the murder of 5230 people in the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp. Oct.17, 2019
93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey in court in Hamburg accused of aiding and abetting the murder of 5230 people in the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp. Oct.17, 2019Credit: AFP
Liam Hoare

The defendant hid behind dark sunglasses and obscured his face with a red folder as a court officer wheeled him into the packed Hamburg courtroom for his first day’s testimony. The trial was "destroying" the autumn years of his life, he complained. "This is not how I imagined my old age would be," the 93-year-old said Monday to the presiding judge.

Dressed in a black hat, blue blazer, and gray trousers, Bruno Dey read Monday from a pre-prepared statement in answer to more than 5,000 accessory-to-murder charges related to his time as a guard at the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp. "The images of misery and horror," from August 1944 to May 1945, Dey claimed, "have haunted me all my life."

The trial of Bruno Dey is one of a number to have taken place on German soil in recent years, part of a race against the clock to put the world’s remaining Nazis on the stand. The successful conviction of John Demjanjuk in May 2011 for his role in the murder of 28,000 people in Sobibor and his subsequent death at the age of 91 one year later demonstrated not merely the need for urgency but also that it could be done even in the absence of eyewitness accounts and survivor testimony.

As the Berlin correspondent of The Times, Allan Hall explains, based on the legal principle of common purpose, it is enough that someone was present in a concentration camp and participated in its operations for them to be considered a partner to the Holocaust.

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And time is indeed of the essence. After Demjanjuk, Oskar Gröning was convicted in 2015 of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz where, between 1942 and 1944, he worked as a bank clerk, confiscating money from the luggage of those sent into slave labor or corralled into the gas chambers. "It is beyond question that I am morally complicit," Gröning said during the trial; he died in March 2018.

In 2017, a case against the then-96-year-old former SS medic Hubert Zafke was thrown out, the defendant having been deemed unfit to stand trial. Zafke, too, died in 2018.

Often a stilted and messy process, these trials of nonagenarian Nazis can, when compared with the raw drama of Nuremberg and Eichmann in Jerusalem, at first appear rather tawdry. Demjanjuk spent most of his time in court lying down, suffering as he was at that time from bone marrow and kidney diseases.

When the guilty verdict was read out, the New York Times reported Demjanjuk "remained nearly motionless, occasionally lifting a knee or an arm but showing no reaction to the proceedings."

Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk leaves a Munich courtroom after being convicted  of helping to kill more than 28,000 people at the Sobibor camp in German-occupied Poland during WWII. May 12, 2011
Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk leaves a Munich courtroom after being convicted of helping to kill more than 28,000 people at the Sobibor camp in German-occupied Poland during WWII. May 12, 2011Credit: REUTERS

In a candid moment during a break during his legal proceedings, Gröning was captured slumped in a chair, appearing physically and emotionally exhausted, sitting outside in an oversized gray coat, his right arm leaning on his walker for stability.

But reality is not always what is shown by the camera. Observers at the Demanjuk trial noted that when the court was in session, he "lay motionless for hours" in the hospital bed wheeled into the courtroom, "not saying a word." But "[d]uring the breaks, he suddenly seemed much less frail. He gestured, smiled and joked with his interpreter or the judicial officials."

Ralf Wiegand, writing for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, describes how even at 93, Dey actually has a very good memory, talking freely in court about his education as a teenage apprentice in Gdansk and how he was asked twice to join the Hitler Youth.

Yet when it comes to the war years, and in particular his time in Stutthof, he obfuscates or occludes. The Frankfurter Allgemeine’s Matthias Wyssuwa describes his answers about this period of his life as "astonishing."

Dey claimed in court not to have known what Stutthof’s purpose was - nor who was imprisoned there. He said he had neither seen anyone shot dead nor looked inside a crematorium. He was, after all, just a guard.

Evidently, then, Dey is capable of standing trial and while we still have the time, the continued hunt for and prosecution of those responsible for the industrialized murder of six million Jews must continue.

Even if because of their advanced age and often poor physical health, these men may never see the inside of a jail cell, it is of paramount importance that the record states their guilt, and their complicity in and responsibility for the Holocaust.

The broken road to these final trials and failings of the postwar European legal process - from Zyklon-B supplier Gerhard Peters’ 1955 acquittal in Frankfurt and the 1993 trial of ex-Vichy police general secretary René Bousquet, aborted by virtue of his assassination, to the botched first trial of Demjanjuk in Jerusalem in 1988 - only serves the highlight the imperative to get it right, even at this late hour.

The hour grows late not merely for the Nazis but the survivors and their families too. There is a duty to prosecute precisely because there is also what the French call le devoir de mémoire, the duty to remember, or to put it another way, a duty not to forget. The courtroom is a forum not only where justice can be done but testimonies delivered and experiences preserved as a matter of historical and personal record.

Rudie Cortissos, whose mother was killed in Sobibor, addressed the 2011 Demjanjuk trial, setting down such details as the dates when trains arrived and the names of those onboard. "I had an opportunity to say what I wanted to say for 50 years," Cortissos told the press afterwards, adding that though Demjanjuk was a "small fish," "whether you are a whale or a sardine, someone who went wrong this way should be punished."

David Irving, the British Holocaust-denier, speaks to Reuters during an interview in Warsaw September 21, 2010
David Irving, the British Holocaust-denier, speaks to Reuters during an interview in Warsaw September 21, 2010Credit: REUTERS

Indeed, in this postmodern, post-truth age, though the work of determining historical fact is best left to historians, the courtroom may be one of the few impartial institutions left in the agora in which, to paraphrase John Milton, truth and falsehood can do battle in a free and open encounter.

This goes not only for Holocaust perpetrators but also Holocaust deniers, as David Irving found out in 2000 when he was put on the defensive by virtue of a thorough examination of his research methods and interpretations of historical events by Deborah Lipstadt’s legal team. It was the London Telegraph who, the day after Lipstadt’s victory, declared that "the Irving case has done for the new century what the Nuremberg tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations."

Though the trial of Bruno Dey, as with John Demjanjuk and Oskar Gröning before him, will be difficult, it is both just and necessary. Too often Europe's governments, legal systems, and people have turned away from the hard work of coming to terms with the past. Dey’s trial may be one of the final opportunities to do not just what is hard, but what is right.

Liam Hoare is Europe Editor for Moment Magazine. He lives in Vienna where he reports on politics, culture, and Jewish life in Austria and the wider region. Twitter: @lahoare

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