Germany is marking the 75th anniversary of the first Nuremberg trial. Initially, the trials, military tribunals by occupying powers, were barely respected in a country that wanted to forget. But that attitude changed.
For Müller, who considers the Nuremberg trials a historic achievement, the most damning legacy is that after the Federal Republic was founded, the judicial system never recognized the legitimacy of the verdicts passed there. German law, Müller says, mandates that convicted public officials are supposed to be stripped of their jobs and lose their pension. But that did not happen to those convicted in Nuremberg, and some even received thousands of Deutschmarks in back-salaries and pensions on their release from the Allied prisons.
Perpetrators are old and dying
Historian Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told DW in an interview in 2015 that although Germany had been slow to deal with its guilt, it had come a long way.
“In the beginning, there was tremendous opposition to the prosecution of Nazis in Germany. They couldn’t completely stop it, but some of the verdicts were just ridiculous,” said Zuroff, an American-born Israeli who coordinates the center’s research on Nazi war crimes.
“People who served in [German death camps] Sobibor or Treblinka were given only a couple of years [in prison],” he said.
But since then, he said, the country had come a long way. “We are light years away from those days in the 60s and 70s in terms of knowledge about the Holocaust, in terms of sensitivity and in terms of understanding of what a horrendous atrocity it was,” according to Zuroff. “Had they applied the same criteria 40 years ago as they do today, the number of cases would have been multiplied by 40 or 60.”
“Nazi hunter” Zuroff pointed out that Germany compares well to other countries that were aligned with it in the Nazi era: “There is an enormous change. And this enormous change came very late – but it came. Germany is a country where they do prosecute Nazis. Compare that to Austria – they haven’t done anything significant in the last 30 or 40 years. In Germany, there is the political will to prosecute Nazis,” he said.
The actual prosecution of Nazis in Germany, which started with the Nuremberg trials 75 years ago, is reaching its final phase. This also means that the future of Germany’s judicial “Nazi hunter” agency is up for discussion.
“Like public prosecutors’ offices and courts, the Central Office can only work as long as defendants are still alive and able to stand trial,” senior prosecutor Jens Rommel, who ran the Ludwigsburg Center for five years until early 2020, told DW in an interview.
“We do not have a comprehensive historical mandate to solve crimes. And I am sure that in the remaining years we will not be able to process everything by legal means,” he said.
Outside the legal system, however, Germany will remain committed to remembrance — especially at a time when right-wing extremism and anti-semitism are on the rise again across Europe.