‘Ottawa’ Last Nazi Trial: The last of the Nazi hunters
DETMOLD, GERMANY – He is one of the last Nazi hunters.
Thomas Walther is 73, an inspiring retired German judge outraged by how little his country has done in the past to bring SS soldiers to justice. For decades, the excuse was that they could only prosecute cases where they had evidence the ex-Nazi was directly involved in a murder. – an almost impossibly difficult task.
More than 120,000 investigations of suspected Nazi war criminals were carried out by post-war Germany, but shockingly, only 560 people were ever convicted.
Walther believes his colleagues were wrong and has pursued the last surviving ex-Nazis in another way – as accessories to murder. Anyone who helped run the Auschwitz death factory, he insists with his fiery passion, bears criminal responsibility.
The respected jurist is driven by his commitment to justice and the rule of law – but there is a more personal connection as well. His father Rudolph saved two Jewish families during the Kristallnacht anti-Jewish riots of 1938. “My father had quite a lot of Jewish friends in the ‘30s and he had hidden two families in our big garden during the Night of Broken Glass and they stayed there for some weeks until they had organized their escape to Australia and Paraguay.”
As a child, Walther remembers his father telling him about the Holocaust at a time when most German families didn’t speak of their country’s darkest hour. And now he is consumed with seeing these last surviving SS soldiers held to account. In 2006, after 31 years as a judge, he retired and joined the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, based in Ludwigsburg, Germany. “I had the idea that it’s an opportunity to do something important. Something has to be done,” Walther explains in his heavily-accented English.
“If there is a bank robbery, you are guilty of being an accessory if you are just waiting at the corner to give a signal that the police are coming. You are guilty. And you don’t have to touch the money,” he explains. “At Auschwitz and the other extermination camps, the German judiciary said, ‘Oh, we have to prove there’s a direct connection between the SS man and the subsequent death, that it’s by his own hand,’ and that’s not the right way.
“That all changed with Demjanjuk.”
John Demjanjuk, a former Ukrainian citizen and later Ohio auto worker, was a former SS guard at the Nazi extermination camp of Sobibor. Walther convinced German prosecutors they could bring him to trial without evidence of a specific slaying, but simply by virtue of the fact that he stood guard as thousands were marched into the gas chambers.
In 2011, Demjanjuk became the first ex-Nazi found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews at Sobibor, and was sentenced to five years imprisonment. He died before his appeal could be heard.
Walther followed that success with Oskar Groning, the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” only the 50th Auschwitz guard to have been convicted out of 6,500 who have stood trial. On behalf of 30 of the 57 plaintiffs in the case, he is hoping Reinhold Hanning will be found guilty as well.
“This late justice is justice for them, their parents and their siblings. They feel it. They can touch it. So I think we did a good job for them and especially for those individuals who were murdered. They are not just gone forever. I think they are quite close to us now,” he says.
The Toronto Holocaust survivors he represents now call him a dear friend.
“I have the utmost admiration and respect for him,” says Hedy Bohm. “Without him, none of this would be possible. It is a miracle that he cares so much and is willing to sacrifice his time and energy.”
Despite his tireless efforts, Walther worries that he’s losing the race to prosecute any more former Nazis.
“I think it will be the last,” he says of the Hanning case. “I don’t think that we will find more alive who will be able to stand trial, that’s the problem.”
In April, former Auschwitz guard, Ernst Tremmel, died just days before he was to go on trial at the age of 93. Proceedings against 95-year-old Hubert Zafke, a former Auschwitz medic, have been repeatedly postponed due to his ill health.
“This trial is not only important because we have a lot of reasons to think that this will be the last one but because the indictment is not only about sending the Jews from the ramp to the gas chambers but about the daily life, the hunger and the work and the lack of medical care – to be there and to do nothing, that’s enough to cause someone to die.”
Denying the necessities of life was a daily crime perpetrated by every member of the SS, he says. “The program was that nobody who arrives at Auschwitz will leave this place alive. ‘The only way out is through the chimney,’ is what the Jews who had been there for some weeks would tell those who were coming new to this place. Living there means death; You cannot do anything against it. You have not enough food and not enough calories to live more than four or five or six months.
“You don’t have to be killed by injection in your heart.”
Hanning cannot plead ignorance, Walther argues. He even admitted as much himself.
“People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies,” Hanning said in a statement read by his lawyer.
He was so loyal that he actually extended his SS career by 12 years in 1944, when everyone knew the war was lost. Walther says. So all these decades later, does Hanning truly regret the crimes of his youth? The former Nazi’s apology left him cold.
“He spoke like he was just a visitor at Auschwitz,” Walther says with disgust. “If you apologize for something, you have to declare for what. The charge is accessory to murder, not being a member of the SS. He said Yes, ‘I was a member of the SS and I’m sorry.’ It is not nothing that he spoke to the public and to the court, but it is not enough. It is not enough.”
Especially telling, he says, was that Hanning never lifted his head to meet the gaze of anyone in the courtroom, not the lawyers, and especially not the survivors who had travelled so far to describe the inhuman suffering they experienced in Auschwitz. But what a difference when a witness was called to go over the documents of Hanning’s SS career.
“Then he looked at the screen and he was very interested, and he was sitting very straight in his chair and his head is up and he’s a strong man.”
Walther demanded more from Hanning but the former guard refused to answer questions about his duties. “You have told stories like a stroller walking through the camp in Auschwitz,” Walther chastised him last month. “You have squandered a great opportunity.”
Walther fears many Germans aren’t interested in the final trials. “I think those who have knowledge about the Holocaust, they believe it has to be done. But there are also a lot of people who don’t have this historical knowledge, young people who are not interested, and they say, ‘It costs a lot of money, it’s stupid, let the old man die in his bed and let him go.’”
But these matters shouldn’t be decided by popular opinion, insists the retired judge. “The law has to be done. And if it’s been done for so long in the wrong way, then we have to do it the right way.”