Is trying nonagenarians for Nazi War Crimes the best way to achieve justice?

If it wasn’t so serious, the idea of a 96-year-old going on the run to escape trial would be quite comical. But behind the image of an old lady hopping into a cab at her retirement home and fleeing for the subway station in the early hours is a quagmire of deeply complex and emotive issues.

Irmgard Furchner stands accused of having contributed to the murder of 11,412 people between 1943 and 1945 when she was an 18-year-old typist and former secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. She is the latest of several nonagenarian Nazi war criminals to be brought to trial, some of them in youth courts because they weren’t adults at the time of their alleged crimes.

Irmgard Furchner being brought into court

The reason this particular case captured my attention is partly because it coincided with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the final day of the Nuremberg Trials that saw twelve senior members of the Nazi establishment sentenced to death by hanging. And partly because the hearing Furchner was due to attend was in Itzehoe, the same north German town that I have been going to all my life. I have been looking Nazism and the Second World War in the face for several decades now, but my countless happy memories visiting relatives there had completely insulated it from the chill of Germany’s wider history. 

Now it is in the spotlight as the face of retribution. So, is it a total no-brainer that even seventy-five years later, such people, nonagenarian or not, must pay for their part in some of the worst mass killings in history? Or is this more a rush by prosecutors to seize the final opportunity to redress the failures of the previous decades? Will sentencing these last Nazis to time in prison achieve justice for the victims? Or are these trials there to serve the broader objective of Never Forget? Is a ninety-year old even the same person as their eighteen-year-old self?

The last guilty verdict issued was to former SS guard Bruno Dey, who was handed a two-year suspended sentence in July 2020 at the age of 93. The 2019 trial against 95-year-old Johann Rehbogen for his service as a guard also in Stutthof Concentration Camp, had to be terminated as his organs were failing. The only successful conviction was of 96-year-old Oskar Gröning, the so-called ‘bookkeeper of Auschwitz,’ who was sentenced to four years in 2015 but died in hospital after his several appeals failed. I wrote about him at the time in my blog. In his case he had not tried to evade justice. Driven by a desire to counter Holocaust deniers and prevent something like Auschwitz from ever happening again, he had been openly talking about his time as an accountant in the death camp. His testimonies, however, were used against him in court with the unintended outcome that other low-level perpetrators and bystanders went silent. 

Oskar Gröning at his trial in 2015

For some people, the greatest justice to all victims of Nazi persecution that these trials can provide is to keep the crimes fresh in peoples’ minds and prevent them from being forgotten, denied or trivialised. They force Germans, including younger generations, to listen to the testimonies of survivors and to rake over the whole disturbing and uncomfortable past once again. 

It is so important that we never forget; that we all learn the lessons that Germany’s descent into barbarity and atrocity teaches us, not least about the vulnerability of democracy today. But survivors often declare that legal retribution is not the main outcome they are after. That they are more interested in shining light on unresolved or overlooked crimes and contributing to Holocaust remembrance and education. 

So, are we now at a time when imprisonment is a less effective response than a more direct dealing with the aftermath of the offence? Is there now another way that serves justice to the many victims of the Third Reich and their descendants AND sends a powerful message to would-be perpetrators of mass crimes that they will never get away with murder AND contributes to remembrance and education AND offers possibilities for healing and reconciliation? 

The past cannot be changed, but the present can. Might communication between those harmed by and those implicated in Nazi crimes, within the safe frameworks of Restorative Justice or mediation initiatives, offer the possibility to fulfil all the outcomes desired by the survivors? Could the excrutiating discomfort of acknowledgment of past wrongdoing be the punishment? Would talking together create an opportunity to resolve some of the harm and nurture the shoots of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that can sprout from really listening and really being heard? 

Further reading:

Trial of 100-year-old man in Germany: why Nazi war crimes take so long to prosecute – The Conversation

Former Nazi death camp secretary, 96, remanded in custody after going on the run – Times of Israel

Nuremberg: The Trial of the Nazi War Criminals – Radio 4

Germans are right to pursue 100-year-old former Nazi war criminals – Irish Times