70 years after Nuremberg trials, Germany tries to right old wrongs
Seventy years after the trials of top Nazis began in Nuremberg, Germany is racing against time to prosecute the last Third Reich criminals to make up for decades of neglect.
The cases aim to bring to justice "even the most minimal participant" in the crimes under Hitler, but also to "allow the last survivors to speak", historian Werner Renz told AFP.
The approach is intended to serve "judicial, pedagogical and social" purposes in a nation still working to atone for past atrocities.
Around a dozen investigations are currently under way against former SS officers, just months after the so-called "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz" Oskar Groening was sentenced to four years in jail as an accessory to murder in 300,000 cases in which Hungarian Jews were sent to the gas chambers between May and July 1944.
A 91-year-old woman and two men, aged 92 and 93, who worked at Auschwitz could still face trial next year for their alleged part in exterminating Jews.
Two of the elderly accused could, unusually, have their cases heard by a juvenile court due to their young age at the time of the acts in question.
"It is too late for those who actually took the decisions, so we have to stretch the notion of guilt to a ridiculous point to try the lackeys," renowned French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld complained before the Groening trial.
- 'Second guilt' -
Whether or not the cases go to trial depends on preliminary assessments by the courts -- a high hurdle given the amount of time that has passed and the advanced age of the suspects.
Case in point: the investigation into the Nazi massacre of 642 civilians in the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944, which was thrown out last year due to lack of evidence against the suspects.
The attempt to prosecute the last surviving officer believed to be behind atrocities in the Italian village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema in August 1944, which claimed the lives of 560 people, fell apart in May due to the suspect's poor health.
And in January 2014, a German court halted proceedings against 92-year-old former SS officer Siert Bruins accused of the murder of a Dutch resistance fighter.
The presiding judge ruled after four months of hearings that because crucial evidence had been lost since the killing and key testimony was unavailable, it had been impossible to convict Bruins of murder.
Yet even the abandoned cases point to a new zeal by the German justice system, driven by a younger generation of prosecutors and judges.
It was also spurred by case law established in "work carried out after reunification on crimes by former East Germany" which posed similar legal problems, said law professor Christoph Safferling of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.
Taken as a whole, however, the record is damning: looking only at Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people died, fewer than 50 of the 6,500 SS officers who worked there and survived the war were ever convicted.
The late German writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano called it his country's "second guilt".
- 80 percent of former Nazis -
"First of all, it is a political failure. Then it is a failure of the justice system," said Renz, who argues that the refusal of post-war West Germany to integrate the concept of "crimes against humanity" into its laws left the courts with "inadequate instruments" to hear cases on Nazi atrocities.
The war-scarred country, where 80 percent of civil servants in the justice system in the 1950s and 1960s had been members of the National Socialist party, had little interest in facing up to its past as it worked to create its "economic miracle", Safferling said.
A handful of high-profile trials, including those of the Einsatztruppen death squads in Ulm in 1958, SS officers from Auschwitz in Frankfurt 1964-64 and from guards from Majdanek in Duesseldorf (1975-81) masked their rarity, and how mild their resulting sentences were.
The Nuremberg trials, beginning on November 20, 1945 and presided over by judges from the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France, established a new legal precedent by prosecuting war crimes suspects in a proper court of law, each with a lawyer, in full view of the world.
The court passed down death sentences on 12 senior members of the Nazi regime.
© 2015 AFP