The hunt for the last Nazis: Unit trawls through millions of documents to track down war criminals

Hunt for the last Nazis: The specialist unit in former women‘s prison trawling millions of documents to track down war criminals who escaped justice

Although the Second World War ended nearly 75 years ago, the hunt for Nazi war criminals continues as a specialist unit battles to bring the last living perpetrators to justice.

Jens Rommel heads up a small team at the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist [Nazi] Crimes dedicated to scouring the world for the elderly Nazis.

As the chief senior prosecutor, Rommel works out of a former women‘s prison in the picturesque German city of Ludwigsburg.

He and his investigators scour around 1.7 million documents dating back to the 1930s to find perpetrators of Nazi war crimes in Adolf Hitler‘s totalitarian killing machine.

The commission possesses the largest collection of files, documentation and materials concerning criminal activities during Nazi rule.

Since 2015, Rommel has headed the unit, which began in 1958 as the newly formed West Germany began investigating crimes which took place outside of the country, in former German-occupied territory such as Lithuania and Poland.

The team‘s investigations into the dark past of WWII have taken Rommel‘s unit of five prosecutors, two judges and one police officer across the world to places such as Russia, Canada, the United States, Brazil and Argentina in search of their targets. 

From Hitler to the lowliest soldier or assistant, every Nazi wrongdoer up until the present day has been identified and recorded by the team then stored in their basement of documents, along with the places and nature of their crimes.

The last perpetrators, accomplices, witnesses and survivors are starting to die off, and the ones that are still alive are well into their 90s, making the hunt for living war criminals even more difficult. 

Once all the perpetrators are gone, Germany will close the judicial side of its coming-to-terms with the Nazi government‘s extermination of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others in the Holocaust.

The spectacle of frail defendants aged in their 90s appearing in courtrooms to answer for crimes dating back to 1945 or earlier has renewed debate about the country‘s dark history.

Rommel, who is no relation to Hitler‘s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, said the office has been involved in 120,000 investigations, resulting in 6,000 verdicts, which he says is ‘a rather bad ratio‘.

For decades after the war, the German government and justice system showed little haste to track down many of those involved in the organised mass murder.

A landmark change came with the 2011 sentencing of John Demjanjuk, who served as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland in 1943, to five years in prison.

It took 30 years to extradite him from Ohio, where he had worked as an autoworker. He had previously been extradited to Israel and sentenced to death 1988 after Holocaust survivors identified him as feared Treblinka guard ‘Ivan the Terrible‘.

However, this was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court when Soviets documents claimed another guard as the sadistic gas chamber operator. 

Demjanjuk then returned to the US to carry on living his life, before being extradited to Germany to face different charges.

The ruling 2011 opened the way to prosecuting anyone who worked at a concentration camp, from soldiers to accountants, as an accomplice in mass murder.

Oskar Groening, known as the ‘The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz‘ for his role as an SS accountant at the Nazi death camp, was tried and convicted in the northern German city of Lueneburg in 2015 as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people.

As a result of this prosecution Rommel said in 2016 that his office would go after more civilian camp workers who were employed as secretaries and telephone operators and put them on trial as accomplices to mass murder.

Rommel said: ‘We believe the guards were to a certain extent accomplices to the murders. It‘s going to be more difficult to judge the responsibility of the civil employees, even though the work they performed was also essential to keep the operations going.

‘We put together the smallest pieces of information, like the pieces of a puzzle, to work out who was employed in what role, from when until when.

‘We have to put every day to use if we want the chance to bring someone else to justice.‘

When they do find an alleged Nazi war criminal still living, Rommel and his team prepare evidence, which is forwarded to a public prosecutor who decides if it is enough to launch a trial.

Some cases are deemed to have enough evidence but still do not proceed to trial because defendants die before the hearing begins, or they are deemed unfit to stand trial by doctors.

He also told VICE News time may be running out to bring the last Nazis to justice, adding: ‘I think we have a few years left.

‘But the youngest defendant is 91 years of age. And it‘s getting more and more difficult to find someone still alive, and still fit enough to stand trial.‘

Earlier this month Helmut Oberlander, who worked as a translator for the roaming Nazi killing squads used by the regime before the development of concentration camps, had his Canadian citizenship revoked.

The 95-year-old had been fighting to stay in Canada since 1995 after it was discovered he had lied about his involvement in the Einsatzkommando squad. 

Many have criticised the comparatively small number of Nazi war criminals ever brought to justice, and by 2012 around 6,498 people had been convicted for their part in the Holocaust.

One of the most notorious Nazis to evade capture was Dr Josef Mengele, known as the ‘Angel of Death‘, who as the Auschwitz doctor carried out horrific experiments on prisoners held at the camp.

A record in the unit‘s files, prepared in the late 1950s, states that his location is ‘presently unknown, likely in Argentina‘.

Mengele died in 1979 in Brazil, having evaded justice for the remainder of his life.

Last August the 95-year-old Jakiw Palij, who US authorities had been trying to deport since 2005, was sent back to Germany to face prosecution.

Palij, who died in January, had worked as a guard at the Trawniki Labor Camp in what was then German-occupied Poland. He claimed he and other men were coerced into working for the Nazis. 

Palij entered the US in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Act, a law that was meant to help refugees from leave post-war Europe. 

He passed away in a home for the elderly in the German town of Ahlen, according to local media at the time.

Hans Werner H, whose last name was not released due to German privacy rules, was accused of serving as an SS guard in the Mauthausen camp in northern Austria from 1944 to 1945.

But last November a German court declined to put the 95-year-old on trial, saying it did not see enough evidence to support charges of accessory to murder.

The Berlin state court said prosecutors have appealed against its decision. Charges against the suspect were filed in October 2018 and prosecutors are awaiting the next date for the appeal process.

He is alleged to have served as a guard when prosecutors say 36,223 people were killed at Mauthausen. 

He wasn‘t accused of a specific killing, but prosecutors argued that as a guard he helped the camp function.

Johann Rehbogen, a 94, is another former SS guard who is being tried on hundreds of counts of accessory to murder at the Stutthof concentration camp.

Since the war the extent of Nazi‘s who fled to the US was not widely known.

Proceedings were launched against 137 alleged war criminals with around 67 being deported, extradited or voluntarily leaving.

Out of the remaining 70, 28 died while their cases were pending and nine died in the US because no other country would take them.

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