Though up to a million people are believed to have actively participated in the extermination of millions of Jewish people during the Holocaust, only around 20,000 were ever found guilty of crimes, and fewer than 600 received heavy sentences, a British Holocaust historian writes in a new book.
In “Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice,” Mary Fulbrook examines the German justice system’s prosecution of Nazi war crimes following World War II, and the relatively minuscule number of heavy punishments meted out to perpetrators of genocide.
Fulbrook, professor of German History and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences at University College London, notes that “perhaps 200,000 people, and possibly closer to a million, were at one point or another actively involved in killing Jewish civilians. And the ranks of those who made this possible were far wider.”
But while in West Germany and united Germany between 1946 and 2005, cases were brought against 140,000 individuals, only 6,656 were convicted of Nazi crimes. And “the vast majority of sentences — just under five thousand (4,993) — were relatively lenient, with terms of imprisonment of up to two years,” Fulbrook writes.
“Of those perpetrators actually brought to court in the Federal Republic of Germany before the end of the twentieth century, only 164 individuals were eventually sentenced as perpetrators of murder, rather than for lesser crimes,” she writes. “In view of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who had been involved in the machinery of mass murder and the six million people who had died in what we now call the Holocaust, 164 convictions for murder is not an impressive total.”
She adds that “The total number of persons convicted under the Federal Republic for Nazi crimes was in itself fewer even than the number of people who had been employed at Auschwitz alone.”
In the East the situation was somewhat better, with a total of 12,890 guilty verdicts pronounced between 1945 and 1989, when Germany was reunited. On average individuals also faced harsher sentences if found guilty. But again the majority, 7,372 sentences, were for prison terms of under three years.
In all, 567 individuals throughout Germany were sentenced to death or life imprisonment for their actions.
Fulbrook blames “legal systems, political considerations and social practices [that] were simply not up to the task of dealing with state-sponsored acts of violence on the scale committed under Nazi rule.”
She also notes that West Germany’s post-war legal system was populated by many ex-Nazis.
Courts would often accept defendants’ claims of “only following orders,” and accept their assertions that they had attempted to make victims’ deaths easier as mitigating factors.
“In effect, if not in intention, West German law condoned obedience to a deadly regime and condemned only those who had individually stepped beyond Nazism’s already murderous limits,” Fulbrook argues.
The historian does recognize that Germany’s Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, active from 1958 to this day, “was assiduous over many decades, even with very limited resourcing, in collecting evidence and undertaking research. What was uncovered in this research represented only a small fraction of what happened under Nazi rule in Europe, and what showed up in court was but the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg.”
And she notes that in recent years determined investigators have stepped up efforts to bring those criminals still alive to justice.
“New generations in the unified Federal Republic of Germany of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have sought to make amends for the dilatory conduct of previous generations by seeking with renewed energy to try to track down and bring to court every last Nazi,” she says.
Just this month 94-year-old former enlisted SS man Johann Rehbogen went on trial, charged with being an accessory to murder for crimes committed during the years he served as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp.
However, with so few left to prosecute, Fulbrook laments that the “continuing imbalance” in Germany’s prosecution of its war criminals “can only be recognized, and no longer rectified.”