Finding justice for Nazis

By Jessica Camille AguirreJune 18, 2014

Finding justice for Nazis

The Eternal Nazi by Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulish

THE CRUELTY of National Socialism remains the epitome of evilness in Western imagination. Nazis continue to represent a brand of inhumanity so unthinkable that the only appropriate response would seem to be categorical condemnation and punishment. Yet, as the recently published The Eternal Nazi co-written by Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennets and Stranger in My Own Country by Yascha Mounk remind us, it wasn’t the victors’ top priority to punish the Nazis in the aftermath of World War II. Tasked with rebuilding a decimated nation on the brink of another kind of humanitarian disaster — Germany’s most basic infrastructure required extensive repair and its crops were in dire need of harvest — excavations of a moral nature were hardly in the realm of immediate urgency. While the Allied war victors detained many former Nazis deemed significant, others slipped through the ad hoc judicial system and still others were sent home with lard and a half-loaf of black bread to reap crops. The nation now held up as a paragon of reconciliation began to address its moral failure at first only in spasms.

Kulish and Mekhennet’s newly released The Eternal Nazi, charts the fitfulness of this postwar judicial endeavor by following the search for Aribert Heim, an Austrian medical doctor who joined the Waffen-SS. Heim, nicknamed Dr. Death, served briefly in Mauthausen concentration camp, where he allegedly committed a number of bloodcurdling horrors. In France, during the last sputtering weeks of conflict, Heim was imprisoned and given the task of treating fellow Germans in a POW camp. He was then shunted around a series of detention centers and finally released during the Christmas Amnesty of 1947. In the summer of 1949, he married and started a gynecology practice in Baden-Baden, at which he continued to work for over a decade. By 1962, just a few months after Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel as a convicted war criminal, Heim fled his home permanently. 

The search for, and prosecution of, the Nazis loosely follow the arc of Heim’s evasions. That Heim was able to spend decades living an unremarkable, middle class life in Germany only to spend the succeeding decades deep in hiding, demonstrates a remarkable social shift from ambivalence towards former Nazis to a deep desire for retribution. The authors capitalize on this shifting paradigm, drawing countless parallels between the state of policy or public opinion and individual Nazis’ postwar survival. From the early, harried days of mass convictions to a resurgent desire to hunt those who had escaped from justice, the book traces the uneven approach to legal prosecution. This disjointed narrative renders any clean moral absolutism derived from the fiction of a quick and straightforward pursuit of the National Socialist war criminals ultimately a post facto conceit. 

There were 70,000 names on the initial list of suspected war criminals compiled by the Allies after the war — far fewer, according to Kulish and Mekhennet, than many desired. In one of the first court cases to proceed at Dachau, 61 people who had worked at Mauthausen were tried; in 1946 all were convicted and 58 were sentenced to death by hanging. Overall, 1,416 Nazis were convicted during the trials at Dachau, overseen by members of the US military. They — along with the initial Nuremberg trials conducted by the Allied powers and the subsequent Nuremberg trials administered by US authorities in which 116 convictions were handed down — were largely concluded by 1949, when the Federal Republic of Germany was founded. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of numbers, especially considering that there have subsequently been at least 925 additional trials of Nazis in Germany. Yet, justice was clearly splintered by meager funds, beleaguered investigators, and a general lack of infrastructural certainty. After the initial Allied trials, political circumstances led many of Germany’s new administrators to focus on the slice of the country under their custody. In the case of the Americans, responsible for re-establishing the southeastern area that includes Bavaria, their attention was soon deflected by the nascent political threat posed by the Soviet Union. 

Throughout Germany, Allies turned to experienced bureaucrats to help with the transition. Former Nazis were tapped to run the institutions of daily organization, and, in some cases, to participate in the country’s own absolution. The Eternal Nazi devotes itself to this irony by intertwining Heim’s flight from prosecution with the stories of two men who sought to bring him to justice: Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, and Alfred Aedtner, a relatively unknown police investigator who flung himself into the Heim case with a fervor that lasted throughout his lifetime. In one of many endlessly flummoxing paradoxes, Aedtner, who joined the war crimes unit of West Germany in 1952, had been injured serving as an ideologically committed member of the Wehrmacht in 1944.

Not only were such paradoxes commonplace, but, ultimately, they set the political tone in Germany for decades afterward. As Yascha Mounk laments in his memoir, Stranger in My Own Country, the reckoning still isn’t complete. As a record of his boyhood as a Jew in modern Germany, Mounk’s book doesn’t probe further than a sparse collection of intriguing anecdotes. However, his work as a historian and political scientist is exemplary, thoughtfully recounting Germany’s successive attempts to reconstruct a political and public life in the wake of a nation’s disgrace. By his account, three out of five bureaucrats appointed to leading positions in federal ministries between 1950 and 1953 had at one point been members of the Nazi party. A desire, as Mounk tells it, to create a national myth of ‘zero hour,’ in which the fact of the Third Reich was effectively purged and a gaping historical lacuna installed in its stead, became the prevailing modus operandi. As time went on, however, the public became increasingly discomfited as so many Nazis continued to slip through the hodgepodge system of justice that was applied after the war. 

By the time a younger generation of Germans became politically active and turned a critical gaze toward the establishment, many former Nazis had wormed through the hierarchy and latticed themselves into the governmental infrastructure. Protests erupting in 1968 (with the accidental shooting of a young art student at a rally against the visit of an Iranian Shah) bloomed into a broader movement, one of whose preoccupations was reconciling the nasty history of an older generation. “It was an anti-authoritarian movement,” Mounk quotes one of the protest leaders as saying, “and it was a movement against the handling of Germany’s history by their parents. It wasn’t merely abstract: for most people, it was about their own parents, their own grandparents. What does it mean to ask your own mother, your own father, what they did?”

For the former doctor Aribert Heim, that was precisely the kind of question he avoided, even when his son, Rüdiger, came to visit for the first time in 1976. As history conspired to reignite pressure on prosecuting his case, Heim fled Europe and it wasn’t until well after his death that his hiding place — in Cairo, Egypt — became publicly known. He remained in contact with his family, communicating with his children by postal service using codenames. Rüdiger, who was six-years-old when his father fled, visited Cairo multiple times over the course of Heim’s concealment — though never enough to satisfy the older man, who kept largely to himself, other than endearing himself to some of the local children. The solitary, discrete life that Heim constructed is the subject of The Eternal Nazi to a far greater degree than are his years at Mauthausen. This emphasis makes sense: the crusade for postwar justice underscores the plodding prosaic nature of the judicial process which confounds the urge for quick justice. The dreary, lurching character of finding legal expression for crimes against humanity runs counter to the popular desire for retribution and a swift righting of wrongs.

Some of the cultural pieces that reawakened historical consciousness — in Germany or the United States — called more for bloody punishments than thoughtful trials and sentencing. Movies in particular bespoke precisely the kind of ham-handedness and counterfactual storytelling that renders itself, on closer inspection, about as relevant and useful as propagandistic smut. One of the first films, entitled Boys from Brazil, that brought international attention to Simon Wiesenthal’s tireless quest for retribution, for example, revolved around a cockamamie plot involving hundreds of genetic clones of Adolf Hitler. That the film bordered on the absurd didn’t attenuate its shock value or reaffirmation of pure Nazi evil in the public imagination. In the years since there’s been veritable boom in the sub-genre of Nazi thriller. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — in which a paramilitary band of Jewish American soldiers rampage around the French countryside scalping Nazis — was but one example of what can only be called retrospective rage fantasy. “I don’t know about y’all,” rhapsodizes Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, to his recruits, “but I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, across 5,000 miles of water to find my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fucking aeroplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. The Nazi ain’t got no humanity.”

Tarantino’s suggestion is a deft little twist that renders any complicated moral calculation unnecessary. Nazi atrocities in the modern imagination have transcended the very concept of crime, which allows unquestionably justified extra-legal punishment. It is not difficult to find modern parallels to such a narrative: alienating the enemy serves the purpose of breezy self-exoneration; if they are devoid of humanity and we are the bearers of it, any ends we undertake are allowable in the service of humanity. Although such solutions seem delightfully simple, in reality, as Hannah Arendt has noted, complicity in great evil does not require a great lack of humanity. Instead she wrote, the moral problem posed by the Nazis was that “the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying that all the atrocities put together.”

Germany still continues to grapple with the problem of how to persecute a series of heinous acts by many of its citizens within the criminal justice system. In February, German officials arrested three elderly men who had served as guards at Auschwitz. Their arrest was part of a broader operation by the authorities to bring the last surviving Holocaust murderers to trial. The roundup was prompted by a ruling in Munich last fall that overturned precedent by convicting a former camp guard at Sobibor who didn’t have a direct provable role in any killings. The decision opened the possibility of indictment for people whose mere presence at the site of a mass murder implicated them. This is the result, however bittersweet, of decades of struggling to define and carry out a reasonable response to unreasonable atrocity: a pursuit that runs contrary to any easy, Tarantino-style vilification.

Using different approaches, both The Eternal Nazi and Stranger in My Own Country chart the long arc of Germany’s uneven attempts to render justice. It’s too easy to forget, in light of modern state-sponsored torture and malfeasant imprisonment, that even perceived evil requires the kind of probing that reveals its striated, complicated contours. “You stand before such an abyss with total incomprehension,” Aedtner is quoted as saying in The Eternal Nazi. “All the things a person can be, on the outside once again a person no one believes could harm anyone, who shoots defenseless old men, women, even infants.” 

This long, complicated commitment belies any easy answers, demanding instead an uncomfortable belief in the possibility of moral authority. When former concentration camp guards stand trial now, they are the old men. They are often brought into courtrooms in wheelchairs or on hospital gurneys; they file appeals from nursing homes. Seeing their feeble mortality doesn’t call for sympathy; it serves only as a reminder that judgment can be fallible. In the end, perhaps the hardest fact to reconcile is that, despite the suffering and the pain, the millions of deaths, and of families destroyed, the Nazis were also human.


Jessica Camille Aguirre is a journalist who lives in Berlin.


LARB Contributor

Jessica Camille Aguirre is a journalist who lives in Berlin.


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