What do countless war crimes mean?

Nazi war criminals - guilt does not expire

Heinrich Boere has taken on serious guilt. The former SS man shot three Dutch civilians in 1944. He was only tried now, more than 60 years after the fact. Boere is seriously ill, but still received life sentence. Thomas Will is a judge at the local court and head of the central office of the state justice administrations for the investigation of Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg. He is still looking for Nazi war criminals. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Will talks about the past, punishment and justice.

DW-WORLD: Why are there convictions only now, more than 60 years after the end of the war?

Thomas Will: There are still convictions, not just now. The reason for this is that unlawful murder is an act that, according to the law, must be prosecuted officially as soon as it becomes known. The task of the central office is to identify and track down such acts and perpetrators.

According to estimates by renowned historians, at least 200,000 Germans and Austrians participated in the Holocaust. German public prosecutors investigated 106,000 suspects, but only around 6,500 were convicted. Why such a poor record?

The number of 200,000 perpetrators is very hypothetical. The reason why there are no more than 6500 convictions is certainly a constant problem of evidence, but on the other hand also the less harsh application of the law in the 1960s / 70s from today's perspective.

Almost all of the last Nazi criminals received life imprisonment; in the 1960s and 1970s, the sentences were more lenient. Has there been a change here?

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Yes, there is such a change, already at the personal level in the courts, public prosecutor's offices and the police. Nobody here is possibly incriminated or subjected to the general consensus of silence that was prevalent at the time. There has been a generation change also with regard to the legal conception. In the past, Hitler, Himmler, Göring and other Nazi leaders were considered the main perpetrators and others as assistants. This allowed imprisonment of a few years to be pronounced and not only life imprisonment, as is to be imposed when a murder is established. That has actually changed, the view of deeds and perpetrators has become more undisguised.

Why are old offenders like Boere, who is 88 years old, still on trial?

Because they are to be followed. Another question is about the ability to negotiate and later about the enforceability, i.e. the ability to be held liable. If one were to enforce against persons incapacitated, this would be a violation of human dignity. However, an old man who is able to negotiate has the same rights and obligations as younger people.

What will happen to Boere after the verdict? Does he have to serve his sentence in a normal prison?

Of course, an appeal against this judgment is also possible, so the judgment is not yet final. It will only be enforceable after it has become legally binding. In some federal states there are enforcement considerations for older prisoners, but these are designed differently. However, the deprivation of liberty always remains the same.

How credible is such a process? The only living witness who was found said he could not remember anything.

This process is as credible as any other process, as it follows the same code of criminal procedure as other processes. The usual principles of evidence apply. Incidentally, the defendant himself admitted the act.

For the convicted, the sentence is usually no longer of great importance, as they are at the end of their lives. So why another trial?

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There is no room for discretion. The trial was conducted because it had to be conducted. Punishment has many functions, those of retribution, but also those of general prevention and also the importance of protecting the interests of the victim. For many relatives who had to witness the acts themselves, such a process has the meaning of seeing the case brought to light. With the determination of a guilty party, a guilty party and an enforcement, most of them are no longer at all.

How could someone like Heinrich Boere, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Netherlands as early as 1949, get around his sentence at the time?

As a former member of the SS, Boere had become a German through membership in the SS. This enabled him to get to Germany and was not extradited as a German citizen. Moreover, the legal conception of the act committed has changed in the time since then.

Is there still a systematic search for Nazi war criminals or is that more of a coincidence?

It is no coincidence that perpetrators are still being charged today. The central office for the investigation of Nazi crimes is still systematically searching in Germany and, above all, abroad. The work itself is very tedious. Sometimes it is a happy coincidence when you come across a living perpetrator and can still prove an act. Of course, this doesn't get any easier over the years.

Interview: Arne Lichtenberg

Editor: Kay-Alexander Scholz