Nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, Germany is still hunting Nazis. In a February raid on nine places housing suspected Nazis, German officials arrested three, and another was arrested in May — which makes it sound like the nation is still committed to bringing the remaining facilitators of the Third Reich to justice. But is that really the case? Some Germans fear that the last Nazis will never be brought in, and that resolution for the Second World War could never come. They cite a failure of followthrough on the part of the German judiciary, but also a larger social issue within a nation that’s very uncomfortable with one of the darkest parts of its past.
In the wake of World War II, Germany was broken up among the allied powers, and the beaten, defeated nation set to repairing itself and recovering under the watchful eye of France, Britain, America and Russia. Global outrage seethed over the concentration camps and the stirring, horrific images that had circulated around the world during liberation, turning them into Germany’s national shame. Nazi-hunters criss-crossed the globe looking for people to bring to trial, in a series of cases that established critical caselaw, including a debunking of the claim that “following orders” serves as a defense against war crimes.
As the allied powers withdrew, Germany was left to wrestle with its past on its own. For decades, many Germans avoided discussing Hitler and the legacy of the Nazis at all, preferring to focus on rebuilding their future and looking forward. As the years passed, though, the nation began to develop a more complex relationship to the Nazis, as reflected in the current German legal system, history lessons, and more — while children in almost every nation learn about the concentration camps, the Holocaust, and Hitler, in Germany, these lessons take on additional, and complex, tones. The nation also has extremely strict laws about neo-Nazis and Nazi-related speech.
Despite the fact that a number of key Nazis were brought to trial at Nuremberg, many escaped, and while they were hunted down in nations like Argentina and the United States, many more escaped the attention of law enforcement. This was especially true for low-level members of the party, like secretaries and other support staff — in the United States, for example, Johann Breyer, a known Nazi, was left largely alone until new evidence proved that his level of involvement at the concentration camps was in fact much higher than previously believed. Before he could be extradited, he passed away, thanks to his extreme age by the time officials caught up with him.
This highlights a common problem: Germany has waited so long to aggressively pursue those involved in the workings of the Nazi party that many are dead, or dying, by the time justice catches up with them. Likewise, the documentation and tools needed to detain, indict and try former Nazis are hard to locate, forcing the judiciary system to release people who may have been intimately involved in the murder of millions of people during the Holocaust. The judiciary, and the German people, were so focused on recovery after the Second World War that they weren’t attentive to the need to track down and try accused Nazis when witnesses, paperwork and other evidence were readily available. Consequently, many have slipped through the cracks, and will never see justice.
Germany has been struggling with the need to reconcile its past in a global landscape that will never forget the Holocaust. In the years following the war, more Germans have become invested in pursuing Nazis, as new generations who lack the sense of personal complicity or failure felt by those who lived through the war are born.
These generations want to see justice, and feel like Germany can’t heal until the issue is addressed — but they may never get it.
Photo credit: Catherine Bulinski