08/28/2014 01:18 PM

The Auschwitz Files

Why the Last SS Guards Will Go Unpunished

By Klaus Wiegrefe

In February, German prosecutors conducted a wave of raids targeting former SS concentration camp guards. It was hoped the proceedings could help make up for decades of inaction. Instead, they will likely mark the latest chapter in the German judiciary's shameful approach to the Holocaust.

It was a carefully coordinated campaign. Criminal investigators from the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg all struck at the same time, at 9 a.m. on Feb. 19 of this year. The investigators, driving civilian vehicles, drove up to residences in 12 locations and presented the suspects with search warrants. The officials had previously determined whether their targets had firearm or explosives licenses.

The suspects, of course, were not expected to put up any resistance. The youngest was 88 and the oldest almost 100. Nevertheless, three of the accused -- in Wiernsheim, Gerlingen and Freiburg -- were temporarily taken into custody.

The next day, prosecutors in each locality issued a press release titled: "Searches conducted of presumed former SS members at the Auschwitz concentration camp."

The sentence contained three key phrases: "search," "SS members" and "Auschwitz." The impact was immense. From the Los Angeles Times to Le Figaro and El País, media organizations worldwide reported on what the German newspaper Die Welt called the "biggest concerted campaign against presumed Nazi criminals in decades."

Almost 70 years after its liberation, Auschwitz continues to trigger strong emotions, more so even than the other sites that played a key role in the Nazis' machinery of death. Among the six million victims of the Holocaust, at least 1.1 million Jews were killed in the largest extermination camp of the Third Reich, along with tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and Sinti and Roma. The victims came from almost all European countries, and most were sent to the gas chambers immediately after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The SS ground up the bones of the corpses and sold the meal to a fertilizer company in the vicinity. The ashes of the incinerated bodies were used in road construction, the hair of the women was spun into yarn and processed into felt, and gold tooth fillings were removed and melted, formed into bars and turned over to the Reichsbank, Germany's central bank during the Nazi era.

Low on the Chain of Command

The police raid on Feb. 19 was part of a bigger operation in 11 German states, initially directed against 30 former members of the SS who had worked at this human extermination factory. The cumbersomely named Central Office of State Judiciary Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, in the southwestern city of Ludwigsburg, had identified the cases.

The list included 24 men and six women, all low-ranking former SS privates and lance corporals. They had worked in Auschwitz as bookkeepers, medics, teletypewriters and -- the majority -- as guards. Many of them were serving at the concentration camp when a transport that included 15-year-old Anne Frank, perhaps the most famous Holocaust victim, arrived in 1944.

The fact that the accused were low on the chain of command in no way diminishes the importance of the new proceedings. As part of the Nazi machinery of murder, they were all suspected of complicity in many thousands of cases.

The concerted operation that began in Ludwigsburg did not miss its mark. The public noted with respect that the German judiciary had tried, once again, to amend what is probably the most shameful record in its history.

The judiciary's pursuit of those involved in the Holocaust stood in sharp contrast to the scope of the crime. According to historian Andreas Eichmüller, of the 6,500 members of the SS who served in Auschwitz and survived the war, only 29 were convicted in West Germany and reunified Germany, while about 20 were convicted in East Germany.

The failure of the German judiciary has long been viewed as part of the "second guilt" for which writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano reproached the Germans in 1987. It stems, he wrote, from the fact that Germans repressed the Hitler years for too long and denied their own guilt.

More than half a year has now passed since the February police raids. And it has become clear that the assumption was erroneous that German prosecutors could at least partially atone for Auschwitz with a last attempt to bring some of the perpetrators to justice. The new cases are being abandoned almost weekly and the reasons are varied. A few of the former SS members have died in the meantime and many are too frail to stand trial. In one case, the suspect had already been punished by a Polish court in the postwar years.

A History of Failure

The former SS members arrested in Baden-Württemberg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have since returned home. So were the actions of the public prosecutor's office "completely excessive," as Peter-Michael Diestel says critically? Diestel, who served as the last East German interior minister and now works as a criminal defense attorney, represents Hubert Z., a former SS Unterscharführer, or sergeant.

Prosecutors are only seriously pursuing charges in eight cases today, suggesting that an especially ignoble chapter in German postwar history is coming to a fitting end. Some suspect that the prosecutors were merely trying to collect PR points by booking a few gray-hairs with a Nazi past.

Either way, the episode seems as though it will do nothing to improve the history of failure that has characterized the German judiciary's approach to Auschwitz. Many explanations for that failure have been offered over the years.

Can the failings be found primarily in the era of Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor of West Germany, as Christoph Safferling claims? Safferling, a law professor, is a member of a committee of historians who have been commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Justice to examine its treatment of the Nazi era. Safferling says it was later no longer possible to correct the failings of lawmakers and judges in the initial postwar years.

Or did the German judiciary lack an overall strategy, as his Cologne colleague Cornelius Nestler puts it?

Did it have something to do with the many Nazis who continued their careers in the judicial service after the war had ended? But in that case, why wasn't there a wave of new trials after this generation had gone into retirement in the 1980s? The last summary trial of an Auschwitz-related case ended more than 20 years ago.

Lack of Interest

Perhaps German criminal law is fundamentally unsuited to "render judgment on systematic, bureaucratically organized, state-sponsored mass murder," as US historian Devin O. Pendas writes. Or perhaps the answer can be found at Konrad-Adenauer-Strasse 20 in Frankfurt, the location of the public prosecutor's office that conducted -- and, in most cases, suspended -- the majority of Auschwitz-related prosecutions.

In reporting this piece, SPIEGEL examined numerous archived documents from judicial inquiries. The magazine spoke with historians and legal scholars along with prosecutors and judges involved in Auschwitz cases. We also interviewed defense attorneys of former SS members and spoke to one Auschwitz survivor.

The punishment of crimes committed at Auschwitz did not fail because a few politicians or judges tried to thwart such efforts. It failed because too few people were interested in decisively convicting and punishing the perpetrators. Many Germans were indifferent to the mass murder at Auschwitz after 1945 -- and thereafter.

Even before the war ended, the Allies suspected that it would be difficult to punish the misdeeds of the Nazis, because of the large number of perpetrators and the difficult legal terrain. Did the Allies have the right to prosecute what Hitler had done to Jewish and other Germans? That right was questionable under international law, as then British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden conceded during a cabinet meeting in 1942, saying that unfortunately such acts could not be viewed as crimes.

To avoid the entanglements of legal procedures, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill proposed having the top Nazis executed by firing squad without trial. He later signed the famous Moscow Declaration of 1943, under which the victorious powers reserved the right to prosecute the "major criminals." Otherwise, those responsible for "atrocities, massacres and executions" were to be tried in the countries in which the crimes had been committed.

During the war, the part of the Silesia region where Auschwitz is located belonged to the Third Reich. The region was returned to Poland after 1945. As a result, the Western power extradited the members of the SS they managed to capture in military raids or in POW camps to the government in Warsaw.

A Considerable Lack of Empathy

The most famous case was that of the longstanding, brutal camp commandant Rudolf Höss, who was found hiding on a farm near Flensburg in northern Germany. A team of British investigators is said to have threatened his wife Hedwig with turning over her eldest son to the Soviets. She promptly betrayed her husband. Höss was sentenced to death in Warsaw and hanged in front of the house where he had lived as commandant.

Polish judges held about 700 SS members from Auschwitz accountable and, according to historian Aleksandr Lasik, did not allow themselves to be "guided by revenge." Some of the sentences were astonishingly mild. On the other hand, courts in Krakow, Katowice and Wadowice sentenced some of the accused to several years in prison just by virtue of their having been members of an SS unit at a camp.

Initially, German courts were only allowed to punish those crimes that Germans had committed against other Germans. But this too proved to be difficult, as Edith Raim of the Institute of Contemporary History discovered. In bombed-out postwar Germany, there was a shortage of courtrooms, coal for heating, telephones and typewriters. In some cities, court proceedings had to be discontinued at nightfall due to a lack of light bulbs. For a time, a paper shortage in Hamburg meant that rulings could not be issued in writing.

Many roads and railway lines had been destroyed and the country was divided into occupation zones. Those traveling between zones needed permission from the Allies. When a prosecutor from southern Germany wanted to question a witness in the northern city of Hamburg, it took six weeks just to send correspondence by mail.

Yet no one can claim that the prosecution of Nazi crimes failed because of a shortage of light bulbs. Unlike other Nazi crimes, the Holocaust encountered little public interest from the start. When the Americans conducted an opinion poll in their occupation zone in October 1945, 20 percent of respondents stated that they agreed "with Hitler on the treatment of the Jews." Another 19 percent found his policies toward the Jews excessive, but fundamentally correct.

'Hidden Opportunism'

Although experts estimate that several tens of thousands of Auschwitz victims came from Germany, less than half a dozen SS members from Auschwitz had been put on trial by the time the Federal Republic was established in 1949. When the Allies handed over the prosecution of all Nazi crimes to the West German courts, little changed at first.

In the first few cases, there was evidence of a considerable lack of empathy, even when there were convictions. The Nuremberg-Fürth Regional Court, for instance, described the inmates at an Auschwitz satellite camp as "poorly educable Polish Jews" who had lacked "concentration camp experience."

Two years later, the Wiesbaden Regional Court acquitted Gerhard Peters. He was the managing director of Degesch, the company that had supplied Zyklon B to the SS -- the chemical frequently used in the gas chambers. Peters' contact at the SS had testified that he had used the chemical for disinfection purposes only. The court concluded that Peters had been "unsuccessfully complicit."

It is possible that prosecutors and judges with a Nazi past were reluctant to prosecute Nazi crimes. They constituted 80 percent of all prosecutors and judges in the states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. The numbers were similarly high at the Federal Supreme Court.

On the other hand, historian Ulrich Herbert has written of the "hidden opportunism" of former Nazis who lacked the confidence to openly oppose the system. In any event, not a single case has come to light of a prosecutor or judge who actively sought to thwart the punishment of crimes committed at Auschwitz.

It was much easier to do nothing. "Peace was made with the perpetrators on the backs of the victims," writes Hamburg law professor Ingo Müller in the new edition of his famous reckoning with his own profession ("Horrible Jurists").

Ten Minutes Per Murdered Jew

And when a case was occasionally brought to trial, even jurists with no former ties to the Nazis exhibited great creativity. An especially popular strategy was to classify perpetrators as accessories, which significantly reduced sentences. One after another, high-ranking members of the SS who had served in the extermination camps were let off with minor punishments. Frustrated investigators came up with the cynical calculation that perpetrators received 10 minutes of jail time for each murdered Jew.

In 1960, Johann Kremer, a former SS concentration camp doctor, walked out of the Münster Regional Court a free man, even though he had ordered the killing of sick and exhausted inmates. Kremer, who needed organs for his medical research, noted in his diary on Oct. 10, 1942: "Extracted and fixed fresh live material from liver, spleen and pancreas."

But the court ruled that because the former SS Obersturmführer had lacked a "personal interest in the crime," he was merely an accessory and not a perpetrator. When Kremer received a 10-year prison sentence instead of a life sentence, it was probably not a coincidence that this was precisely the amount of time he had already served in Poland.

The so-called accessory construct was based on the wishful thinking that only Hitler and his entourage had been responsible for the Holocaust. All others, the legendary Hessian chief prosecutor Fritz Bauer said derisively, viewed themselves as "raped, terrorized followers or depersonalized and dehumanized creatures compelled to do things that were completely alien to their nature."

In the era of former Chancellor Willy Brandt, there was still a prevailing view of the Germans as Hitler's victims. Even established opponents of the Nazis, like former Chancellor Adenauer, believed that it was necessary to accommodate the desire to draw a line under the past, even if it meant violating the principles of law. One of the most astonishing documents to have come to light in recent years is the protocol of a conversation between Adenauer and an Israeli diplomat in 1963. Israel was pushing for the resumption of diplomatic relations and Adenauer hinted that he could accommodate this desire -- if Israel, in return, accepted that West Germany cease its prosecution of Nazi war criminals, which he called "intolerable for Germany's standing in the world."

The big Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in the early 1960s would probably not have materialized if Chief Prosecutor Fritz Bauer had not devoted himself to the issue. A Social Democrat from the southern Swabia region, Bauer was an outsider in many ways: a former concentration camp inmate, immigrant, Jew and homosexual. In addition to justice for the victims, he wanted the "determination and, if possible, widespread acknowledgement of the truth." Bauer planned to put an end to the collective silence with a major Auschwitz trial.

Fortunate Circumstances

A series of fortunate circumstances played into Bauer's hands. A journalist with the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper gave him documents that he had received from an Auschwitz survivor. They were letters in which the camp administration appealed to an SS and police court in Wroclaw in 1942 to abandon a judicial inquiry against 37 named SS members who had shot inmates. Such judicial inquiries were part of the pseudo-legal façade of the extermination camp.

The names of the marksman provided Bauer with leverage. He obtained a judgment from the Federal Supreme Court to transfer the "criminal matter against the former members of the commandant's office of the Auschwitz concentration camp" to the Frankfurt Regional Court. This placed the case in the hands of the prosecuting authority under Bauer's supervision.

Then Bauer assigned the investigations to a few prosecutors with no former Nazi ties. The young men proceeded to demonstrate how easy it was to advance the Auschwitz cause -- as long as there was the will to do so. They asked Jewish organizations for help, used newspapers to find witnesses and reviewed documents in Auschwitz. Within a few months, the prosecutors had identified roughly 600 SS members, as Bauer biographer Ronen Steinke notes.

Then a systematic search was conducted, partly through the media. This led to the exposure of Richard Baer, the last Auschwitz commandant, who had assumed a false name and was working at the Bismarck family estate in the Sachsenwald forest near Hamburg.

Bauer instructed the prosecutors to put a "cross-section of the camp" on trial. He didn't want to pass judgment on the perpetrators in individual trials, in which prosecutors would try the "murders of A by X, B by Y or C by Z," as he put it. Such an atomized approach to conducting the cases would have obfuscated why the Holocaust was so horribly efficient: because the Nazi human extermination factory was based on the division of labor.

The Reich Security Head Office, the headquarters of SS terror in Berlin, would announce the arrival of a train carrying Jews by sending a radio message or telex. The commandant's office then notified the relevant departments. The shift schedule determined who was on duty at the train platform. The SS members then went to the platform, which was on a sidetrack at the Auschwitz freight yard, on foot, by bicycle or by motorcycle.

A Disappointing Verdict

At the platform, the unsuspecting inmates were divided into two groups. Those in one group were sent to the camp as forced laborers. The others boarded trucks that took them to the gas chambers, or they were marched there on foot. The SS sought to create the impression that the gas chambers were shower rooms. So-called disinfectors dumped Zyklon B into shafts located on the exterior of the gas chambers. SS doctors waited nearby to provide assistance in case the murderers inadvertently poisoned themselves.

It was Bauer who exposed this structure.

The most important German Nazi trial in postwar history began in the Frankfurt Römer building on Dec. 20, 1963: "Criminal Proceedings Against Mulka and Others." The main trial was a milestone in the examination of history. A total of 20,000 visitors followed the trial, the legal opinions became bestsellers, and the media reported daily on the testimony of more than 350 witnesses. In doing so they brought an awareness of the Holocaust into people's living rooms.

Viewers burst into tears when former inmates, like Hungarian Jewish doctor Lajos Schlinger, told their stories. Upon arriving at the platform, the unsuspecting Schlinger recognized Dr. Victor Capesius, the director of the camp pharmacy, among the SS members. Before the war, Capesius had visited Schlinger several times as a representative of the Bayer pharmaceutical firm. Overjoyed to see the SS officer, Schlinger approached him and asked where they were and what was to happen next, as his wife was very ill. Capesius reassured him and said that everything would be fine, and that Mrs. Schlinger and their 17-year-old daughter should line up with the severely ill inmates. With the words "you should go over there," Schlinger sent his loved ones to their deaths.

Today Bauer is celebrated for having made the trial happen, against significant resistance. It could also be argued that the example Bauer set proves that the will and determination -- and steadfastness -- of a single person were sufficient.

Even decades after Hitler's demise, investigators and prosecutors alike were harassed by landlords, received death threats and faced graffiti in their hallways. Bauer was given a 6.35 mm pistol, and his driver also served as a bodyguard.

Heinz Düx, 90, the former investigative judge in the Auschwitz trial, is one of the few people who can describe the mood in the judiciary at the time. A short man with a goatee, Düx remains an avowed leftist to this day. Time and again, he wrote "secret memos" when colleagues tried to thwart the investigations, with feigned excuses like the one that it was all too much work for the regional court.

'Outrageously Lenient'

For instance, there were two regional court judges who proposed breaking up the planned major trial into individual proceedings and handing off a portion of the cases to other public prosecutor's offices. The proposal would have destroyed Bauer's concept of a mammoth proceeding. Then there was the senior government official who for weeks delayed an inquiry Düx had made to the Soviet Embassy by insisting that East Germany had to be referred to in the letter as the Soviet occupation zone. Finally, there were the presiding judge on the regional court and a state secretary who refused to approve Düx's request to make an official trip to Auschwitz.

Düx gives accounts of colleagues who privately referred to witnesses from the extermination camp as "professional Auschwitzers." But he also says that the case was not seriously in jeopardy at any time. Bauer, Düx and a few like-minded individuals -- that was all it took to mount a trial of this magnitude.

But Bauer had no influence over the court's ruling. Only recently, Werner Renz of the Fritz Bauer Institute, an independent German cultural institute that researches the history and impact of the Nazi crimes, addressed the fatal legacy of the verdict. It provided an excuse to those judges and prosecutors who were unwilling to address the crimes of Auschwitz. And the verdict discouraged the handful of others.

The sentences against a few senior camp officials were "outrageously lenient," Renz says, an outcome from which their subordinates benefited. 'The Frankfurt public prosecutor's office, for example, subsequently abandoned a case against 14 truck drivers who had transported Zyklon B and victims to the gas chambers. It argued that the drivers' culpability was "minor" compared to the guilty verdicts handed down against SS members who had selected inmates at the platform.

Most of all, Bauer failed with a legal strategy that would have changed everything. The chief prosecutor had argued that the genocide of the Jews at Auschwitz did not consist of a large number of individual crimes, but instead should be treated as a single crime. It sounded academic, but it would have had vast consequences. According to Bauer, each member of the SS workforce at the camp would, in principle, have been guilty of "participation in murder, from the guards to those at the very top."

A Mere Handful

But both the Frankfurt Regional Court and the Federal Supreme Court, on appeal, rejected the construct, a decision that would save the skins of those thousands of SS members who could only be shown to have served in Birkenau. Accordingly, being a cog in the wheel was not enough for a conviction.

From then on, prosecutors and courts alike invoked this Federal Supreme Court ruling on Auschwitz -- even though the court, in cases relating to other extermination camps, took a position consistent with Bauer's approach, as law professor Nestler has discovered.

Instead of a wave of indictments against lower-ranking perpetrators, the big Auschwitz trial was followed by a mere handful of major trials. And, in most cases, demonstrating concrete involvement in a crime proved to be impossible.

The passage of time became the most powerful ally of the SS veterans. A case involving a particularly horrific crime -- the murder of about 400 Hungarian children -- ended in 1976 with the acquittal of SS camp leader Willi Sawatzki because the key witness for the prosecution was no longer fit to be questioned. The SS men, who had run out of Zyklon B, drove the children to pits and threw them into a fire while they were still alive. When the children tried to escape, the SS men kicked them back into the flames. An eyewitness later reported seeing "little balls of fire that could be seen crawling out of the bonfire."

Because the Federal Supreme Court routinely referred Auschwitz cases to the Frankfurt public prosecutor's office, less than a dozen specialized lawyers and judges handled virtually the entire criminal prosecution of crimes committed at the camp. According to a survey by the Institute of Contemporary History, the Frankfurt officials conducted 1,060 cases -- and abandoned almost all of them. No one has systematically analyzed the files in the Hessian State Archive in Wiesbaden yet, but it appears that the prosecutors became less and less motivated with each failed prosecution.

How else can the cynicism in memos to which SPIEGEL has gained access be explained? Take, for example, the case of one SS guard that was prosecuted in 1982. The man had stood at the platform a few times to prevent arriving Jews from escaping. But Chief Prosecutor Hans Eberhard Klein ruled that the victims didn't know what awaited them. Consequently, he argued, they had no intention of fleeing, so that the guard couldn't have prevented them from doing so.

New Life

It is the logic of judiciary officials searching for an emergency exit.

And then there was the 2005 case involving an employee of the "Prisoners' Money Administration," which was responsible for the possessions of the murdered inmates. The plundering of those possessions was not the root of the crime, but was "merely a welcome byproduct for the war economy," argued Prosecutor Eberhard Galm. He also noted that it was doubtful whether the SS sergeant "was aware of the brutality of death by agonizing suffocation from hydrocyanic acid vapors."

Case settled, file closed.

At some point the Central Office (ZSt) in Ludwigsburg, where the preliminary work took place that usually triggered the Frankfurt proceedings, began to lose interest. "Auschwitz was no longer of importance to the judiciary," Kurt Schrimm, the head of the office in Ludwigsburg, concedes. Indeed, the February raids against former SS members would likely never have happened if Ludwigsburg investigator Thomas Walther had not attempted to bring John Demjanjuk, a former SS guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, to trial in 2008.

Walther, new in Ludwigsburg, was fearless and surprised at the intellectual lethargy of many of his colleagues. He was long ridiculed, but to everyone's surprise the Munich Regional Court returned a guilty verdict against Demjanjuk, who had lived in the United States after the war but had been extradited. The verdict against the native Ukrainian, against whom no concrete, individual crime could be demonstrated, served as a trigger. The lower-ranking members of the SS at Auschwitz were an issue once again.

Suddenly Ludwigsburg lawyers were discovering parallels between Auschwitz and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They focused on Moroccan-born Hamburg student Mounir al-Motassadeq, who had been indicted as an accomplice to terrorist pilot Mohammed Atta on thousands of counts of murder. Motassadeq had concealed Atta's absence from Hamburg and had helped transfer money to the 9/11 attackers in the United States. But he hadn't killed anyone, and unlike the SS members at Auschwitz, he was actually thousands of kilometers away from the scene of the crime. Like lower-level SS members, Motassadeq could claim that the murders would have occurred even without his participation. Nevertheless, the Federal Supreme Court found Motassadeq guilty of complicity in 2006.

The Ludwigsburg team also discovered that apart from the Frankfurt Auschwitz verdict, other courts in the 1960s had held ordinary supporting staff from other extermination camps responsible. For instance, an SS bookkeeper from Sobibor was sent to prison for his administrative role.

Symbolic Convictions?

The investigators also remembered lists of thousands of SS members from Auschwitz that had been compiled in Fritz Bauer's day.

The prosecutors conducted a dragnet-type investigation, eliminating anyone born before 1912, because they were presumably no longer alive. Then they presented the remaining files to pension insurance funds and other insurance agencies. In the end, the team had assembled 30 names and addresses, which they forwarded to the relevant public prosecutor's offices in the places where these people lived in the fall of 2013.

Some of them were vicious characters who had been given lengthy prison terms decades ago by the Allies or in East Germany. But they did not come under scrutiny in Ludwigsburg because of their complicity in specific crimes, but because they were parts of the machinery that engaged in systematic killing.

One of them was Hermine G., who worked as a secretary in the telex section of the commandant's office, from which reports on the murdered Jews were sent to Berlin. Another was Jakob W., a guard who had served in the camp for two-and-a-half years, primarily in the watchtower. "Of course, if we hadn't been there Auschwitz wouldn't have existed," he admits. But W., who later became an architect and a German civil servant, does not feel guilty in either a criminal or a moral sense.

A Question of Fairness

The advanced age of the accused is irrelevant to the legal assessment of their cases. Of course, many observers consider it absurd to convict 88-year-olds under juvenile law for crimes committed 70 years ago. But what is fair?

Esther Bejarano, the 89-year-old chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, has something to say about that. She was a young woman when she arrived at the death camp, but she survived because of her musical abilities. The SS needed her for the concentration camp's so-called girls' orchestra.

Bejarano lives in a small apartment in Hamburg. Despite her advanced age, she is full of energy, although she has never been willing to appear in trials against former SS members -- a burden she says she could not endure. Of course, she welcomes the new investigations, she says, albeit with some bitterness. "This is such a farce," she says. "These people should have been punished right away after 1945." Bejarano will never forgive the judiciary for its failings, no matter what happens in German courtrooms today.

For Bejarano, it is a question of how the former SS members behave in court. Those who continue to espouse the "horrible ideology" must be "severely punished," she says, whereas those who show remorse should receive leniency.

There is only one thing this clever, effervescent musician would find intolerable: acquittals. "From a symbolic standpoint, they have to be convicted, no matter what," she says. "They were there and they participated, even if they were personally not guilty of any misconduct."

But such a Solomonic solution is not an option. The German legal system has no provisions for symbolic punishments. A person is either guilty or innocent.

Insiders expect that the evidence will only lead to trials in two cases at most. And if the two elderly defendants are indeed convicted, the share of SS members from Auschwitz who received a guilty verdict in Germany will have reached a new high: 0.48 percent.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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08/28/2014 02:24 PM

Interview with an Auschwitz Guard

'I Do Not Feel Like a Criminal'

Interview Conducted by , and Klaus Wiegrefe

As a young man, Jakob W. worked in the watchtowers of Auschwitz. Charges against him were recently dropped, but he described to SPIEGEL what it was like to be a cog in the Nazis' horrific machinery of death. 

Jakob W. was 19-years-old and in his third semester studying architecture at college when he received the letter that would, seven decades later, turn him into a suspect for complicity in murder.

In the summer of 1942, the young man from a village near Belgrade received his draft notice. Just a few months later, he was standing on a tower hundreds of kilometers away from his home in Yugoslavia. Jakob W. was now an SS guard in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp -- and thus a party in the most horrific of the crimes committed by the Third Reich. For two and a half years, he looked down at the factory of human annihilation, day in and day out.

Now, in 2014, Jakob W. lives in a large, southern German city, his house plastered white and his garden filled with roses. A chain-link fence separates his yard from the neighbor's. A retired civil servant with a degree in architecture, W. has lived here for more than 30 years. Wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and black leather shoes, he settles in the living room on a black leather couch, covered in a wool blanket. The room is crammed with carpets; an oak china cabinet overflows with knick-knacks. Above the sofa is an oil painting of a mountain lake at sunrise.

Jakob W. was one of the 30 people targeted by German prosecutors in the fall of 2013, suspected of being accessories to multiple murders. Given the advanced age of the suspects, it is likely that these will be the last legal proceedings in Germany relating to Nazi war crimes.

It is now August, and it is the third time that the retiree has received journalists from SPIEGEL. A few days prior, just after his 91st birthday celebration, he learned that state prosecutors in Stuttgart had abandoned the case against him. Jakob W. was already convicted by a Polish court in 1948 in connection with his Auschwitz duties and he cannot be punished a second time.

The elderly man, whose German has a slight Slavic tint, has the energy of a man 20 years his junior. He could now draw a line under his past. But just as he defied investigators earlier this summer when they asked him not to speak to the press, he has no intention of keeping his mouth shut now. He wants to "bear witness," as he calls it, and share his version of the story. He has only one condition: Anonymity.

SPIEGEL: When did you first hear about the gas chambers?

W.: When you see that so many trains are coming, people arriving, then nobody can say anything. Everyone knew about it.

SPIEGEL: Were you ever inside a gas chamber?

W.: Just once. It was with a surveyor team. I was charged with guarding them. That was in 1943 or 1944.

SPIEGEL: How big was the chamber?

W.: Maybe as big as my entire house, which is 90 square meters (970 square feet). I mean, when one of the trains arrived, with 200 or 300 people, then they, if there were too many, had to wait outside.

SPIEGEL: You could see that from above?

W.: They had to wait in front of the gas chamber for an hour. And then they were led inside. They also heard the screams, but they, the SS people, the … I mean, that's how it was. That's how it … happened.

SPIEGEL: What was going through your mind when you were standing with the surveyors in the gas chamber?

W.: You can imagine it must have been a big room. It was pretty much a concrete bunker. There were pipes on the outside; I don't know any more if there were four or six. Then they threw a can inside.

SPIEGEL: You saw SS troops throwing Zyklon B in from the outside?

W.: Yes, of course. Standing on the tower, you could see them coming. It was always a vehicle with two men inside. And then they drove directly there and did a little operation and then you knew: That is the death squad.

Jakob W. was in Auschwitz until January 1945. After that, his unit was sent to defend Breslau, the present-day Polish city of Wroclaw, where he lost his right eye and was wounded in the stomach. To this day, he can only hear out of his left ear. In addition to his wife, he also invited his neighbor to be present during the interview. He wants to show that he has no secrets, and never did.

Many knew that he was once a guard in Auschwitz, including his three sons, colleagues at work and the Protestant pastor from the local church. Even the Chancellery and the German president's office knew. In 2011, Jakob W. wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-President Christian Wulff complaining that the state had docked his pension by €59 ($78) per month due to his violation of the "principles of humanity" during the Nazi period. A law passed by Helmut Kohl's government made the decrease possible. His petition was politely rejected.

W.: In Auschwitz, I would have a week of daytime shifts and a week of nighttime shifts on the towers and then a week with the labor squads outside the camp.

SPIEGEL: Were you alone in the tower during your shifts?

W.: Yes, but at night there were two of us for the 12-hour shift, swapping out every three hours. In between, you could get some sleep. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, there is that famous gate through which the trains drove into the camp. Up above in the building was our break room for night shifts.

SPIEGEL: What do you remember about your service on the towers?

W.: Twelve hours is a long time. When it was hot, you had to stand the whole day in the sun. When it was cold, you had to constantly hop from one foot to the other. There you are, six meters (19 feet) up and you aren't allowed to go down, not even to pee.

SPIEGEL: What did you think about when you were up there?

W.: In the morning, all the prisoners had to go to work, somewhere to build roads. In the evenings, they came back in. In between times, there was nobody to be seen in the camp. During those times, we would read. I had a Bible with me, or a newspaper. That wasn't forbidden.

SPIEGEL: You read the Bible on the guard towers?

W.: I am an Protestant Christian. And I believe it was God's will that I was just a guard. And not in a firing squad.

SPIEGEL: Did you ever shoot a prisoner in Auschwitz?

W.: I never shot anybody.

SPIEGEL: From the towers, you had a view of the entire camp. Did you ever see another SS soldier shoot a prisoner?

W.: No.

SPIEGEL: Did you ever see a prisoner trying to escape?

W.: No, but it happened. They were mostly acting out of desperation. They jumped onto the fence and were shot to death.

SPIEGEL: But you never saw such a thing?

W.: I never shot anybody.

SPIEGEL: Did you have any contact with the prisoners?

W.: Yes, but it was mostly the German ones.

SPIEGEL: And you talked with them?

W.: They only spoke to us if we spoke to them first. Because many of us would say things like "shit Jews" or "stinking Jews," it's their fault that we are here. I would almost say that the majority blamed the Jews for the fact that we had to stand guard there. We used the informal "du" (you) when speaking to them and they had to use the formal "Sie" (you) when they replied.

SPIEGEL: What did you talk about with them?

W.: One time we had this women's labor squad, a couple of really young ones. And so I asked: "Why are you here?" Then she answered: "Because I'm Jewish." And what are you supposed to say then?

'You Couldn't Complain, It Wouldn't Have Changed Anything'

SPIEGEL: Did you see the corpses being burned?

W.: The crematorium chimneys weren't very tall. Depending on the wind direction, it stunk badly. And starting in 1944, the crematoria weren't able to keep up. Next to them was a ditch, perhaps three or four meters across. A fire was burning in the trench day and night. Two men were always carrying straps that they used to pull them (Eds. note: the corpses) out of the gas chamber, removed the straps and threw them into the fire. If you were standing in the area, it was impossible to look away.

SPIEGEL: So you were on a tower near the gas chambers?

W.: We always changed. The fence was right behind the gas chambers and the towers were behind that. You could see it. A huge fire was burning.

SPIEGEL: A huge fire of corpses?

W.: It never went out. Day and night. You get used to everything. Nobody could leave. And you couldn't complain, it wouldn't have changed anything.

As Jakob W. was talking about this dark chapter of German history, his wife was sitting next to him, knitting. Sometimes she would help him recall something or complete his sentences. She knew many of the details. She says that sometimes, at birthday parties of friends or family members, her husband would start talking about Auschwitz out of the blue.

The story of SS guard Jakob W. got its start in Beška, a small town near Belgrade where so-called Danube-Swabians, as Yugoslavia's German-speaking population was known, lived at the time. In April 1941, Hitler's troops marched into Yugoslavia. For W., that is an important detail. He never had German citizenship, he was Yugoslavian. And he says he also isn't responsible for the fact that, starting in 1942, the SS began sending long-serving SS guards to the front and replacing them with ethnic Germans. In the second half of the war, half of all guards were ethnic Germans.

Polish historian Aleksander Lasik maintains a database of SS members who served in concentration camps. He can substantiate that 45 men from W.'s home district served in Auschwitz. Jakob W. himself estimates that the number from Beška was around 20, including a cousin of his and a schoolmate. If that is true, Beška could very well have been the village with the highest concentration of Auschwitz personnel.

SPIEGEL: How did you get to Auschwitz?

W.: We were told that the train would leave from Indija, a village next door to Beška, at 9 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1942. SS people there received us. They told us that we weren't allowed to get off the train anywhere. We traveled in a passenger train to Vienna, where the last car was separated from the train. It went to Auschwitz.

SPIEGEL: You were sitting in the last car, in other words?

W.: Yes. We were seated according to last name. "S" to "Z" were sitting in the last car and had to go to Auschwitz. It was by chance. When a train arrived in Vienna, the SS divided up the passengers. Names were called out alphabetically. And when one car filled up, they started with the next one.

SPIEGEL: How did the journey continue?

W.: When we arrived in the Auschwitz train station, we immediately marched the two kilometers to the Birkenau camp. First, they cut our hair short, vaccinated us and gave us tattoos. Mine was an upside-down "A," which stood for my blood type. We initially received three months of training, including on a firing range. Lying down, standing, everything you can imagine.

SPIEGEL: Where were the others from?

W.: Our group was mostly made up of Germans from abroad, from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Jakob W. insists that he had no choice. Research conducted by the historian Jan Erik Schulte indicates that conscriptions into the Waffen SS in 1942 Yugoslavia were "essentially predominantly compulsory affairs." As such, W.'s case began with a violation of the Hague Conventions, which expressly prohibits drafting foreign citizens to bear arms.

When W. arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was officially designated as a prisoner of war camp. Originally, SS head Heinrich Himmler had wanted to use prisoners of war to establish a network of defensive forts and barricades to protect German settlers in Eastern Europe. But then he had the site expanded into the largest death camp in the Nazi's machinery of destruction.

At the time, Auschwitz was part of the German Reich, with Hitler having annexed the region following the attack on Poland. Ultimately, the complex included three main camps and around 50 subsidiary camps. Many prisoners were brutally murdered in the sub-camps as well, but gas chambers were only to be found in the core camp ("KL Auschwitz I") and in the 140 hectare (346 acre) sea of barracks known as Auschwitz-Birkenau ("KL Auschwitz II").

Surrounding Birkenau were thousands of cement poles connected to one-another by electric fencing. On the outside of the fence stood the guard towers of varying heights, with SS guards wielding spotlights and machine guns on top. Surrounding those barriers was an additional string of guard towers, allowing the SS to control a huge swath of terrain. They were to prevent prisoners from escaping while performing labor outside the camp. At times, there were 3,000 guards on duty.

W.: If you had a daytime shift, it ended at six in the evening. Then we went to the canteen. Afterwards you could request to leave the camp and you could go as far as the Auschwitz train station. The girls from Katowice, the nearest larger city, would always go there.

SPIEGEL: So you would leave the camp during the evenings?

W.: Yes, yes, of course. There were many bars. Most played skat and drank beer.

SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?

W.: People weren't enthused about the leadership. We of course knew and everybody almost felt that it couldn't end well, that it couldn't been good when trains were being brought here full of people who were then getting killed. We all had that feeling. But, I mean, when you're a soldier ...

In the personnel files of camp staff members, there are official declarations stating, "I may not cause bodily harm or death to opponents of the state (prisoners)." It also states, "I am aware and I have been informed today that I will be punished by death if I misappropriate Jewish property of any kind." The SS team at Auschwitz -- a camp where the indiscriminate torture, robbing and murder of people was part of everyday life -- were required to pledge in advance to do precisely the opposite.

One could view forms like that as a special form of cynicism. Or one could see it as a pseudo-legal facade aimed at covering up the Holocaust. One provision called for "absolute secrecy" to be maintained. In practice, it had no meaning.

W.: My brother visited me once. He began serving as a Wehrmacht soldier in 1941. I didn't get any vacation at the time. He wrote to me that he had been given five days of special leave to visit me.

SPIEGEL: When was that?

W.: He arrived at the train station in Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. There was a home for visitors and he called me from there. I picked him up and we walked around the entire camp. He wore a Wehrmacht uniform, but that didn't draw any attention in Birkenau.

SPIEGEL: And what did your brother say about the concentration camp?

W.: What did he say? He knew about it. Half of our village was in the SS and everyone had said something about it at home.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel about your brother's visit?

W.: I was glad. My cousin, who was also a guard in Auschwitz, got a day off as well. The three of us walked around the camp. You have to imagine it being like a large village. The prisoners weren't there, they were at work.

SPIEGEL: Do you show him the crematoriums where the gas chambers were located?

W.: He saw it, of course. That evening we went back the train station and into the bar.

Jakob W. says that, while serving in Auschwitz, he saw a military newspaper that included a want ad seeking Wehrmacht medics for the front. He claims that he then twice told his superior that he would prefer to join the combat troops. After the second time, he says, the company commander threatened to jail him for insubordination if he made any further attempt. There is, however, no written proof that this happened.

The public prosecutor in Stuttgart opened an investigation into W., part of which was W.'s presence on the tracks when a transport train from Berlin arrived at Auschwitz in 1943. The Jewish prisoners had often been underway for days by the time they arrived. On a siding at the freight depot, new arrivals would be "selected," as it was called in the Nazi vernacular. From there, the SS people would either march them in columns to the camp or transport them by truck. Most were murdered immediately in the gas chambers and forced labor awaited the others.

SPIEGEL: What was it like when you received the train full of prisoners?

W.: There would be a whistle to duty and they would call "step up". Then you would move into position, about 20 meters from the train, which had already arrived. They would open the doors from the outside and we had to encircle the train until the people had been unloaded. They would then be taken into the camp by the guards responsible for internal camp supervision.

SPIEGEL: Did the people arriving attempt to flee?

W.: They were so intimidated. Before their departure, they were told they were being taken to a labor camp and that nothing would happen to anyone unless they tried to run away. In the gas chambers, they saw the nozzles and thought they were going to take a shower. Before entering, they had to stack their clothing in neat piles.

Surviving prisoners have differing memories of their arrival at Auschwitz. Some recall glaring spotlights and shouting SS troops. Others speak of being greeted by men in civilian clothing in a "very friendly" manner. The friendliness was meant to provide the victims with a sense of security and to prevent panic.

Researchers are convinced today that the division of labor in the industrial killing machine significantly reduced the inhibition threshold of staff. They estimate that the percentage of pathological murderers among the perpetrators to be 10 percent at the very highest. They believe that others who aided in the killing hesitated, had doubts and pangs of conscience. But they then somehow talked themselves into believing that they didn't have anything to do with the crime in question.

SPIEGEL: Do you bear any guilt for what happened?

W.: No, I don't have that feeling. We gave the Jews what was left of our bread, which otherwise would have been thrown away. We set it on their toolboxes near the place where they got water. I never did harm to any Jew. But I also wasn't able to help any of them.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel a something like a sense of moral guilt?

W.: No. I spoke to them in a friendly manner; I never hit, kicked or killed any. I do not feel like a criminal just because I had to guard them. Germany had invaded Yugoslavia and that was a crime against humanity and international law. Then the Nazis conscripted me and brought me to Auschwitz. And how was I supposed to get away from there? If I had deserted, they would have shot me.

The German justice system tried once before, in the late 1970s, to serve justice on Jakob W. But the case was ultimately closed. Back then, he told investigators that he hadn't known what "was happening inside the camp." He also didn't mention anything about being part of the selection on the unloading ramp. He only said: "My insight wasn't that extensive." Was it just a self-serving assertion to avoid incriminating himself? Today, Jakob W. says he can no longer remember the questioning. What he does say is that it would be absurd to claim that people didn't know what was happening inside Auschwitz. "When the crematorium is constantly burning, then everyone knows that something is going on."

SPIEGEL: What happened to you once the war ended?

W.: As an SS member, I was placed in an American camp for prisoners of war. At the end of 1946, I was in Dachau along with perhaps 6,000 prisoners. We were housed in three-story barracks and wore our old uniforms. My great coat was still torn up from the injury. Then, one morning, we were told that the Jews from Auschwitz would be coming today as witnesses.

SPIEGEL: They were supposed to identify you?

W.: There were around 20 men. They were from a special unit that led their own people to the gas chambers and they had to take them from there to the crematorium in wagons. They were all young people.

SPIEGEL: How was the encounter?

W.: They all had the right to spit on and denounce us. Instead they went past us, looked at us and said: "You poor pigs. Where are your officers and Blockführer?"

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