The Last Of The Nazi War Criminals

Coincidentally, just as I am completing watching the Netflix documentary “The Devil Next Door,”  another former Nazi prison guard has begun trial on charges that he was an accessory to 5,230 murders at a German concentration camp in Poland during World War II.  “The Devil Next Door” engrossingly tells the strange story of a Ukrainian immigrant named John Demjanjuk who appeared to be a model U.S. citizen, respected neighbor and beloved husband and father in Cleveland before the U.S. decided he was really a former Nazi camp guard nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” for his sadism and brutality at the Treblinka Nazi death camp in Poland. Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and tried in Israel from 1986 to 1988 for crimes against humanity. A three judge panel convicted Demjanjuk and sentenced him to hang after a dramatic (and troubling) trial, but the former Ford auto-worker died while his  appeal was pending. Under the doctrine of abatement ab initio, he is still presumed innocent.

As I have written here before, I have many ethical problems with the concept of war crime trials, but “Ivan the Terrible” certainly tests them. Whether or not Demjanjuk  was Ivan, the Treblinka gas chamber operator was a monster even by SS standards, torturing the camp’s Jewish victims before their extermination. In the United States, I cannot imagine that that Demjanjuk would have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt: the evidence was compromised, the eye-witnesses often contradicted themselves and appeared confused (“Some were liars, some were senile, and some were liars and senile” is how Demjanjuk’s Israeli lawyer puts it on camera). The most damaging testimony against Demjanjuk was his own, and in the U.S. he never would have been allowed to testify.

Was he “Ivan”? All one can say is “probably.” The case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, not even close to it.

At the time, it was widely believed that Demjanjuk’s would be the last Nazi war crimes trial, but now  Bruno Dey, 93,  a prison guard  in the Stutthof camp near what’s now Gdansk, Poland, is being tried in Hamburg, Germany.

Unlike Demjanjuk, whose defense was that he was never a death camp guard, Dey admits  that he saw Jews taken into gas chambers at the camp, heard their screams and heard the rattling of locked steel doors, and “didn’t see anyone come out.” At the same time, he claims that he didn’t understand what was going on.  Here is the ethics fly in the ointment for Dey: he is being tried as a juvenile because he was 18 when he began work at the camp. In Germany, the age of majority is 21.

Should a teenager forced to assist in the death camps’ murders be tried and punished after all these years? In Bruno Dey’s case, my objections to war crime trials are alive and well.  So is my conviction that there has to be accountability when terrible wrongs have occurred. My most recent combination of the two macro-ethics issues was here, when I wrote,

In 1865, the end of the Civil War brought shocking photographs of barely living Northern prisoners of war in the Confederacy’s Andersonville, Georgia, prison. The images were beyond horrible, nightmare pictures of living skeletons, and the subsequent accounts of the abuse and neglect the men suffered made many readers physically ill. Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, the man left in charge of running the prison, was tried by a military tribunal in the first official war crimes trial, found guilty, and hanged. He was a convenient villain, a German immigrant with a thick accent, an unimaginative functionary who followed orders in an impossible situation. Everyone on the tribunal, in all likelihood, knew that Wirz could have no more prevented his charges from starving than he could flap his arms and fly; indeed, they knew that conditions at Northern prison camps were equally inhuman for the Confederate prisoners warehoused there. They also knew that had they been in Wirz’s place, they probably would have acted no differently than he did. It didn’t matter, certainly not to the public screaming for “justice.”  The photographs showed that there had been an intolerable and obscene crime against humanity, and somebody had to pay. Somebody had to hang, in fact, and unfortunately for Henry Wirz, it was him.

The ethics conflict between accountability and fairness is one of the most difficult there is. It is dangerous to society’s values to allow responsibility for a massive disaster  and human tragedy to be diffused through so many actors and agents that in the eyes of history, no one is held accountable. Yet in situations where the responsibility really is complex and diffuse, a collision of bad management, human error and chance, representing it to be otherwise is unfair and unjust to the designated villains. Admiral Kimmel wasn’t responsible for Pearl Harbor. Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski wasn’t to blame for Abu Ghraib. Henry Wirz didn’t cause the prisoner abuse at Andersonville. The Nuremberg  defendants couldn’t have stopped the Holocaust, and George W. Bush wasn’t the reason for the housing meltdown in 2008. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine weren’t the cause of the BP oil rig explosion and spill, either.

But somebody’s got to go to jail.

OK, but many Nazis have been tried and executed for their role in the Holocaust. Is it really necessary, or fair, to extend accountability to teenagers like Bey, who, to be realistic, didn’t have any autonomy or power in the matter? This seems like gratuitous vengeance to me.

Let’s poll it:

23 thoughts on “The Last Of The Nazi War Criminals

  1. This is a tough question. I guess it would come down to if he knew what he was getting into. I’m gonna bet he couldn’t “opt out” once he knew what was going on.

  2. Are we really to expect individual German soldiers and citizens to stand up the the NAZIs when doing so meant being taken out back summarily shot in the head. “Do the right thing and it will be tantamount to committing suicide.” Whew. This is tough stuff. The architects of the mass murdering of Jews and others? Sure. The bricklayers? Not so sure.

    • Perhaps other commentators know more of the specifics of what Mr. Dey was alleged to have done. I do not; and while the article presents what Mr. Dey maintains were the limits of his knowledge and his actions, it does not provide any further information about the allegations against him, or whether there even were any allegations against him. Do we know whether anyone alleges whether he did more than simply watch Jews go into the gas chambers and not come out? Is there anything that amounts to probable cause to suggest a possibility that he could have done more, such as beat, torture or kill inmates on his own initiative, with no order to do so? Is there anything that amounts to probable cause to suggest a possibility that he undertook his actions with a pleasure-producing glee and fervor, above and beyond the exigency of simply following orders to avoid being subjected to severe punishment or death himself?

      To be clear once again: I do not know whether or not such allegations have been raised, and/or whether there is probable cause for making them. If it were to turn out that this is the case, then proceeding with a fair trial, with assurances of due process and of all pertinent rights accorded to the witness, would, I think, be unavoidable. The context–the most heinous crime against humanity in the history of the globe–is simply too critical to glide away from, regardless of how many years have passed; the imperative remains. If there is probable cause that Mr. Dey might have committed an alleged offense, we have, I believe, an ethical obligation to humanity to adjudicate it.

      Whether he should be punished for his crimes, if found guilty, is another matter.

  3. I am hesitant to even ask these questions for fear of being eaten alive for utter stupidity, but it seems to me that these types of war scenarios are the equivalent to “an offer he can’t refuse.” A person being ordered to do something illegal, inhumane, or sadistic is really damned either way. If they disobey the order, they are dead. If they follow the order, they are eventually dead, most likely after a lifetime of self-imposed mental torture if they were human at all. Unless one was in a leadership position giving the orders or took great delight in committing the heinous deeds, why are they put on trial at all? Is it just because somebody has to be held accountable? Doesn’t the concept of self-preservation play a role? I feel sure these are Ethics 101 questions, but I would hope I could still get an answer to them.

  4. Short answer No. He should not be tried.

    We did not try Von Braun for his complicity in the Nazi war machine whose work developed technology designed to kill and maim civillians ( his excuse was he was only to create the means to get the rockets there and not where they land) so why is this person subject to judicial action. The pound of flesh was paid years ago when we hanged the high command and let some rot for years in jail.

    We need to move on.

    Addendum. I for one am glad President Trump pardoned the three soldiers convicted of killing suspected enemy combattants. When the enemy starts wearing uniforms and stops using civillians as human shields or targets we can begin contemplating war crimes.

    • Follow up:
      The rationale given for the trial is to have a German court try a Nazi. What kind of rationale is that?

      Most of the deaths according to the report were from Typhus and squalid conditions. He is charged because he did not let people escape. This soldier was a tower guard and he is considered an accessory because a the Court in the Demjanjuk case ruled that anyone associated with the Nazis can be considered a “cog” in the Holocaust. – unless of course he is of use to the winners –

      This is a show trial for a few. In this case it is the ultimate in virtue signalling.

      • To be even clearer, questioning whether trying him as child or not trying him at all because he was under 21 is irrelevant.

        The issue is whether anyone in his position should be tried. I say we are done with trials. Where will it stop with the tower guards or should we try the people responsible for designing and building the camp. What about the people who lived near the camp who did nothing. They saw people going in but never coming out as well. And, what about those that deny any of this ever happened, should they face charges to ensure that the holocaust is never forgotten.

  5. Dey was born in 1926. At some point in 1944, he turned 18 years old – in this country, he’d be old enough to vote, old enough to enlist, old enough to smoke.

    Even at 16 and 17 (ages in 1942 and 1942), he probably knew enough of what was going on. There were some his age who resisted and were executed. Helmuth Hubener was 17 when the Nazis executed him in 1942 for opposing Hitler’s regime.

    Dey can stand trial, for all I care.

      • SW
        I was going to make a similar comment but decided against it. But you are correct. It is easy saying someone should choose to die for a cause when they will never face the same situation.

        • Which was my dad’s objection to the Nuremberg trials—ironic, since he proved several times that he personally would refuse to follow orders he considered immoral or illegal. he did not hold others to that standard, however.

      • Glad you have the intestinal fortitude to die at 17.

        I would like to clarify my comments.

        I am not judging IM for the sentiment. I understand the impulse, the revulsion, that can contribute to saying such a thing. i have felt that way myself.

        My point, within the context of Ethics Alarms, is that I view this as a type of Golden Rule violation. This makes it unethical in my opinion.

        IM has said what many are thinking. The courage IM it took to drag this out of the inner darkness so it can be examined helps enlighten everyone, myself included. It is a service to our community in search of ethics.

        • At some point, there has to be a sense of responsibility.

          Dey needs to face accountability – but he also deserves due process. Maybe he isn’t fully responsible in a criminal sense. Maybe the coercion of the Nazi regime is a substantial mitigating factor… but at the same time, he WAS a cog in the machine and he DOES bear some moral responsibility as well.

          It’s not like I’m wishing he ended up like some of the Dachau guards who had the misfortune to run into the 45th Infantry Division during the liberation (look up “Vengeance at Dachau” and “Boston Globe” on Bing or some other search engine for the details).

          Granted, the GIs of the 45th ALMOST got in trouble for their… overreaction, shall we say? But the fact was, even then, there was an effort to get accountability, although in that case, it seemed to be more a case of the process serving as punishment.

  6. For those who are looking for some help in thinking their way through this kind of issue, I recommend a couple of books: “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris, and “Cilka’s Journey” by the same author.
    The tattooist was a Jew who agreed to work in the camp, tattooing numbers on the arms of the Jews. Why would anyone, especially a Jew, agree to help the Nazis?
    Cilka was a teenaged victim of the holocaust at Auschwitz. Upon liberation of the camp by the Soviets, she was accused of cooperating with the Nazis, which, to an extent, she did, and she was shipped to one of the gulags where she was treated not much differently than in Auschwitz. Should she cooperate with the Soviets to save her life, to help a friend survive?
    I haven’t seen how Dey ended up in the SS-Totenkopfsturmbann, but you can be sure there was substantial pressure on him to join the German Army, and you can be sure there were real or implied threats against him and his family to do his job well.
    We cannot know what we would do in the same circumstances as the tattoist, Cilka, or Dey. We can only imagine.
    Likewise, we cannot know what we would want, were we in the place of the Stutthof victims.
    Yet, those who would judge must imagine themselves in those circumstances as fully as they can. Thus, the concept of a jury of our peers, hinted at in the 6th Amendment, and the practice of military crimes being tried by courts martial.
    As to Dey, I would not put him on trial. And I certainly wouldn’t do it for the reasons stated by an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, “seeing what happened to them declared an injustice in a German court” and “telling their story so it doesn’t get forgotten.”

  7. Conscription in Nazi Germany was certainly happening at age 17 and younger by the end of 1944. Most boys were, of course, drafted into the Army, but it was not unusual for them to be forced into the Waffen-SS. In fact, some boys were tricked into it by virtue of some fine print at the bottom of the form they were asked to sign when given a complimentary X-Ray.

    Joachim Fest, the noted German historian, whose father refused to give the Heil Hitler greeting in public or allow his children to join the Hitler Youth (even after it was mandatory), had the hardest time telling his father he’d enlisted in the German Army in order to keep from being forced into the Waffen-SS.

    Resistance was difficult, but not impossible.

    In Nazi Germany, as in any country at war, you go where you are assigned. Nevertheless, the idea that you took your life in your hands by not wanting to kill Jews is largely a myth. In his book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”, Daniel Goldhagen examines how the Einsatzgruppen (the special forces that were sent on killing missions behind the scenes) allowed for the use of volunteers during these Aktions – that there is no record of any soldier being punished, much less killed, for turning down the chance to machine gun Jewish civilians in the forests – and that no one was ever punished for turning down the job of concentration camp commandant.

    Now…could you maybe harm your career, be denied promotions, not get the extra pay that the participants did? Sure. But that’s not the same thing as being interned in a concentration camp or being killed yourself.

    That being said, I don’t agree with what’s happening now.

    The late Auschwitz payroll clerk Oskar Groening was charged as an accessory to a crime despite the fact that there is no evidence he ever killed anyone while in his position as the money man. Germany changed its laws a few years ago to allow them to charge anyone who worked in a camp, regardless of their role. This appears to be motivated, in part, by decades of largely ignoring the killers in their midst. “So the guys that dropped the Zyklon-B into the gas chambers are long dead, we’d better show we are serious about getting justice for the victims by charging anyone, regardless of how old they were at the time, what their role was or whether they even wanted to be there”. Groening asked for a transfer three times and was denied. He was also quite candid about the Holocaust, confronting Holocaust deniers who thought he would approve of them by telling them he was there and knew what happened.

    Throwing these 90-plus year old men in prisoner for the last two or three years of their lives is useless and wasteful. The late Eva Moses Kor, a survivor of Josef Mengele’s twin experiments, said that she saw no point in imprisoning Groening and others like him. To her, they are far more valuable as witnesses to a history that is fading fast. In my opinion, these are just modern-day show trials to demonstrate how Germany is making up for its failure to charge the guys who actually did machine gun civilians.

    What’s next? Charging 80-year old guys who were forced into the Hitler Youth at 10-years old?

  8. So you mentioned Andersonville and the fact that Northern POW camps in the Civil War were pretty atrocious as well. Two things come to mind for me: The South had much fewer resources to feed their own people (albeit better than what the POWs got), so part of the problem there was simply a lack of resources. That wasn’t true in the North — I believe it was more malign neglect than an active desire to murder the Southern POWs.

    Then too, I recall the horrendous record of the British in the Revolutionary War — their treatment of American prisoners was probably just as bad as that suffered in places like Andersonville, but they didn’t get the press attention (and they kept the prisoners on board ships, so the dead could be just pitched over the side).

    Lastly, if you recall a couple years ago when we were talking about toppling Confederate monuments? One of the ones toppled was up in Wisconsin — I believe it may have been Camp Randall, but right around there. It was put up, I believe, by a Southern group of some sort, and honored the townspeople who took those Confederate prisoners under their wings (so to speak). The death toll in that POW camp was much, much lower than the norm for Civil War prisons. But I guess those Wisconsinites were bad people because they dared to have the humanity to want fellow human beings to live and not starve to death.

    • The Andersonville case is an ethics train wreck. There is correspondence that shows that Lincoln and Grant stopped prisoner exchanges because they wanted to keep the South from putting ex-prisoners back on the line, and because they new that the South couldn’t spare the men and resources to guard and care for Northern prisoners. “I know out boys will suffer horribly, but…” Lincoln writes. In other words, Lincoln and Grant deliberately created the conditions that led directly to the horrors at the prison, then the North charged the Capt. Wirz for war crimes.

      • Yeah, I think I remember that now that you mention it.

        In a similar vein, I was reflecting on Sherman’s march to the sea and subsequently burning down South Carolina. It was a harsh time in American history, after truly horrendous losses on both sides.

        What I was wondering is if this is a similar situation to the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One can absolutely make the case that we saved a multitude of lives, both Japanese and American by ending the war then rather than continuing to burn Japanese cities and invading Japan.

        Can we make a similar case for the March to the Sea, and ending prisoner exchanges — i.e. they shortened the war and ultimately reduced the total butcher’s bill. After Sherman took Atlanta, Lincoln’s re-election was pretty well assured, so it was just a matter of how long and with how many casualties it would take to force the South to surrender.

        • Sherman is still regarded as a war criminal by many Southerners, and there is no question that Truman would have been tried for war crimes had Japan won WWII.The fire-bombing of Dresden could easily qualify as a war crime.

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