The Last Nazi Trial in Germany? By Richard R. Moeller
Reinhold Hanning appeared, as has been a trend for former Nazis, in a wheelchair almost exactly a year ago in 2016. He was convicted by a German court to five years in prison. He did not live that long.
Hanning died recently (30 May 2017) while he and his family awaited an appeals process. Apparently he was not individually involved in the massive deaths at Auschwitz; however, he was complicit nonetheless for his participation and thereby convicted of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder. One might remember John Demjanjuk who died similarly, albeit with more legal obstacles lasting decades.
Will this lack of tangible justice become the trend?
Perhaps time is the true enemy of hunting Nazis. After all, the great Nazi hunter himself, Simon Wiesenthal, died over ten years ago. He maintained “I have survived them all. If there were any left, they'd be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done.”
After his death, Wiesenthal received well-earned adoration from all over the world, especially in Germany and Israel. The United States had let him know in the mid-fifties that hunting Nazis was not a priority any longer and his homeland of Austria tried to silence him out of embarrassment. One report from Wiesenthal stated that his Austrian postman delivered a letter to his house addressed to “The Jewish Pig, Austria” – without his name or address even being written on the envelope.
Wiesenthal’s legacy is bound up today with his Nazi hunting; however, it’s his work with Jewish refugees that occupied his last decades. When in Los Angeles, visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In many ways, Hanning’s trial ending in a natural death instead of five years of punishment would enrage Wiesenthal. He stated: “[S]urvival is a privilege which entails obligations. I am forever asking myself what I can do for those who have not survived.” From Nürnberg (1946) to Adolph Eichman (1961) to Hubert Zafke (2015), hunting Nazis was seen as a moral imperative. Zafke and Hanning (along with Demjanjuk) set a new standard, with the help of legal maneuvering and aging eye witness testimony.
The last few trials in Germany failed to bring justice for convoluted reasons. Indeed, age is now the final obstacle (or justice if you will) to finding WWII Nazis. Many have escaped justice, especially those wealthy ones hiding out in Eastern Europe. But for Germany, this might have been the last attempt.
Richard R. Moeller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.