Ladies and gentlemen,
“Last chance for Nazi investigators”, “The last remaining handful in their sights”, “Probably the last National Socialist trial in Germany”, “A cog in the machine”, “Auschwitz Survivors, in Their 90s, Urge Germany to Act on War Crimes Case” – these were headlines in newspapers around the world in the summer of this year. On 17 June, the Detmold Regional Court reached its verdict against 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, who served as an SS guard in Auschwitz from 1943 to 1944. He was found guilty of complicity in murder in at least 170,000 cases and handed a five-year sentence of imprisonment. And he is not the only defendant to be tried, so many years later, for crimes committed during the Second World War.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay special tribute to dedicated eyewitnesses and joint plaintiffs – such as yourself, Mr Schwarzbaum. I am delighted that you are with us here today.
It is largely thanks to you, Mr Walther, that these trials have taken place at all. As an investigator at the Central Office of the Land Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg, you launched investigations into John Demjanjuk, an SS guard in Sobibor, early on. You were persistent, trawled painstakingly through all of the investigative files and searched for new evidence until, finally, the case was brought before the Munich Regional Court. For the first time in decades, this trial resulted in a verdict being returned in 2011 by a court in Germany against an SS concentration camp guard. Since the 1969 ruling of the Federal Court of Justice, only those who were specifically complicit in the execution of the predicate offence – i.e. murder at a concentration camp – were liable for prosecution.
You contested this decision by Germany’s highest court with courage and determination. And you were successful, as the court ruled that Demjanjuk was “part of the machinery of destruction”. All of the volunteers were, at all times, fully aware of what was happening in the camps as people were taken there solely to be murdered, the court found. Everyone who was involved in this systematic murder, the court continued, was guilty – even if, such as in Mr Demjanjuk’s case, there was no evidence that they had committed a specific crime.
Even though the judgement never became legally binding owing to John Demjanjuk’s death, it was the catalyst for many changes. This trial made it possible to open investigations and charge defendants who worked in concentration camps with complicity in murder. Investigations into 30 surviving guards were then commenced; cases against 24 of these defendants have since been closed, however.
Last summer, the Lüneburg Regional Court handed former SS accountant Oskar Gröning a sentence of imprisonment for complicity in murder in 300,000 cases at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. His defence council has appealed against this verdict – we are still awaiting the Federal Court of Justice’s decision.
I am sure that many of you have, at one time or another, been asked whether these trials are still really necessary today – 71 years after the end of the Second World War. Both the accused and the victims are extremely elderly, and the trials are immensely taxing for both sides. In the majority of cases, trials are no longer possible at all as the potential defendants are either no longer alive or unfit to stand trial.
My answer to this is clear: yes, they are necessary!
And I am by no means alone in holding this view. The Ministers of Justice of the federal states agreed at their meeting in Stuttgart last year that an end to this investigative work is “currently not in sight”. Jens Rommel, head of the Central Office in Ludwigsburg, confirms this assessment, and I quote: “We have been able to submit increasing numbers of cases, especially against former concentration camp guards, to the public prosecution offices in recent years. This proves that the judicial system is able, even today, to prosecute cases of murder committed by the National Socialist regime”.
While these trials are a race against time, they nevertheless mean a great deal to the survivors and the relatives of the victims. They are a clear reminder that, even 71 years after the end of the war, these crimes must be brought out of the shadows. Perpetrators who are not so-called major war criminals must also be tried before the courts.
These trials are followed closely throughout the world – staff members at our missions abroad will be able to confirm this, as will you, Mr Walther, since you are still searching for witnesses and joint plaintiffs for ongoing trials.
And you, Mr Schwarzbaum, are giving the victims a face today by appearing as a joint plaintiff. Thank you for taking on this ordeal!
And even if many trials have to be closed or do not get off the ground, we have a duty to investigate crimes to the best of our abilities. We owe this to the victims.
Fritz Bauer, who, in his capacity as Attorney General of my home state of Hesse, worked with devotion to help open up the Auschwitz trials in 1963, had the following to say about our relationship with the past:
“Coming to terms with our past is about standing trial ourselves, for the dangerous factors of our history, and, ultimately, for everything that was inhumane here; this gives rise at the same time to a commitment to genuinely human values in the past and present.”
The way in which we approach our past ultimately determines how our society will preserve respect, tolerance and humanity also in the future.
This is why we must never leave these crimes unpunished. This is the only way for us to combat extremism in all of its forms in a credible way today – with both the force of the law and preventive education. This is the only way for us to tackle hate speech today – and especially on the Internet. And only then will we be able to call for tolerance for those who think and speak differently, as well as for those with different beliefs, appearances and sexual orientations.