Germany’s Nazi hunters in final straight of race against time

Tucked away in the picturesque German city of Ludwigsburg, a tiny team of investigators tracks the last surviving Nazi war criminals across the globe and through the better part of a century, in an urgent race against time.

“We put together the smallest pieces of information, like the pieces of a puzzle, to work out who was employed in what role, from when until when” in Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian killing machine, says prosecutor Jens Rommel.

He has since 2015 led the eight-strong Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, at a time when the last perpetrators, accomplices, witnesses and survivors are finally vanishing.

Once all the perpetrators are gone, Germany will close the judicial side of its coming-to-terms with the Nazi government’s extermination of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others in the Holocaust.

In the meantime, the spectacle of frail defendants aged in their 90s appearing in courtrooms to answer for crimes dating back to 1945 or earlier has renewed vigorous debate about the country’s dark history.

For decades after the war, the German government and justice system showed little haste to track down many of those involved in the organised mass murder.

A landmark change came with the 2011 sentencing of John Demjanjuk, who served as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland in 1943, to five years in prison.

The ruling opened the way to prosecuting anyone who worked at a concentration camp — from soldiers to accountants — as an accomplice in mass murder.

Before that judgement “we never cast an eye over the smallest cogs in the machine,” said lawyer Andrej Umansky, author of a book on the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

The changed legal landscape since then, he said, offers a chance “to give victims a voice, their families, and to bring the facts back into the public consciousness”.

From Moscow to Buenos Aires

The team’s probes into the dust-shrouded past have taken Rommel’s team of five prosecutors, two judges and one police officer across the world in search of their quarries.

Many German Nazis fled to South America immediately after the war, among them one of the main architects of the Holocaust Adolf Eichmann, who landed in Buenos Aires.

He was captured by the Israeli secret services in 1960 thanks to information passed on by German prosecutor Fritz Bauer, who was outraged by the inching progress of his own country’s justice system.

As for less notorious Nazis, “all the boats that arrived there were registered. We have combed the passenger and crew manifests” and followed up on any German-sounding names, Rommel said.

Officials scoured immigration registers, applications to be naturalised in Argentina, and the records of the German embassy.

“We owe it to history” and to the millions of victims to “battle against forgetting”, said Peter Haeberle, of the justice ministry in Baden-Wuerttemberg state, where Ludwigsburg sits just outside its capital, Stuttgart.

The team’s travels halfway around the globe — at a time when there remains no chance of tracking down a living high-ranking Nazi official — have not escaped criticism in the press, such as from Die Welt daily, over their sometimes exorbitant cost.

1.7-million files

Many have criticised the comparatively small number of Nazi war criminals ever brought to justice.

By 2012, some 6 498 people had been convicted for their part in the Holocaust.

The monumental weight of history is clear from the smell of aged paper lingering behind the security doors of the former women’s prison where the investigation team is based.

One million seven hundred thousand cardboard files are stored in rigorous alphabetical order in rows of imposing metal cupboards — a unique full-size database of Nazi criminals and details of their acts.

From Hitler to the lowliest soldier or helper, every Nazi wrongdoer identified up until the present day is recorded here, along with the places of their crimes.

Rommel carefully withdraws file 3 AR-Z 95/59 for Dr Mengele, Josef.

Known as the “Angel of Death”, the Auschwitz doctor carried out horrific experiments on those held at the camp.

The record, prepared in the late 1950s, reads that his location is “presently unknown, likely in Argentina”.

Mengele died in 1979 in Brazil, having evaded capture — and justice — for the remainder of his life.

However many more Nazis enter the dock or end up behind bars before all trails finally run cold, Rommel and his team know the overwhelming majority of perpetrators’ stories will have ended similarly.

Nevertheless, he insisted, “we have to put every day to use if we want the chance to bring someone else to justice”.

Yannick Pasquet
Yannick Pasquet works from Berlin. Journaliste AFP à Berlin. Il est beaucoup question d'Allemagne, d'immigration et de réfugiés, pas mal de Grèce. Auteure Le Mur dans les têtes (Ed. du Moment) Yannick Pasquet has over 5610 followers on Twitter.

Mabuza’s ‘distant relative’ scored big

Eskom’s woes are often because of boiler problems at its power plants. R50-billion has been set aside to fix them, but some of the contracts are going to questionable entities

ANC faction gunning for Gordhan

The ambush will take place at an NEC meeting about Eskom. But the real target is Cyril Ramaphosa

Despite tweet, Zuma keeps silent about providing his taxpayer information

The Public Protector has still not received confirmation from former president Jacob Zuma that she may access his tax records —...

Ahead of WEF, Mboweni will have to assure investors that...

The finance minister says despite the difficult fiscal environment, structural reforms are under way to put SA on a new growth path

Press Releases

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Is your tertiary institution is accredited?

Rosebank College is an educational brand of The Independent Institute of Education, which is registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Is your tertiary institution accredited?

Rosebank College is an educational brand of The Independent Institute of Education, which is registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

VUT chancellor, Dr Xolani Mkhwanazi, dies

The university conferred the degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa on Dr Xolani Mkhwanazi for his outstanding leadership contributions to maths and science education development.

Innovate4AMR now in second year

SA's Team pill-Alert aims to tackle antimicrobial resistance by implementing their strategic intervention that ensures patients comply with treatment.

Medical students present solution in Geneva

Kapil Narain and Mohamed Hoosen Suleman were selected to present their strategic intervention to tackle antimicrobial resistance to an international panel of experts.