The writer Joseph Conrad once observed that “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is unnecessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” This certainly rings true with respect to perpetrators and enablers of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Media reports this week say German prosecutors intend to lay charges against a number of alleged Auschwitz guards despite the fact that the youngest is 87 years of age.
Hopefully the judicial system will finally work before the latest of these alleged Nazi war criminals succumbs to natural causes.
Just as important is some troubling reaction to this story: There remain those who believe that given the age of these perpetrators and that the murderous brutalities occurred more than 65 years ago, we should simply move on.
Really? Should we forget that according to many sources the SS battalion of guards at Auschwitz were cruel beyond all imagination. Charged with ensuring that the Jews who arrived by cattle car, starved, demeaned frightened beyond words were properly divided between those healthy enough to work and those to be gassed, they took on their task with a maniacal zeal.
The elderly, women and children were the first to be rounded up after the trains emptied. The guards used whips, truncheons and vicious German Sheppard dogs known as Hundesstaffe to relentlessly drive their victims into the gas chambers.
Following the war a number of Auschwitz guards were captured and put on trial. During subsequent interrogations one guard described what he witnessed:
He was a serjeant [sic] with the Bavarian Gendarmerie and came to the Waffen SS as an Oberscharfuehrer,a broad, thick-set beer swiller and a real swine. He was like death incarnate, always thinking out new methods. In June ’41 I saw him chasing a Jew behind a dray until he was exhausted. Then he asked him if he would like some water. So he made him kneel down in front of a bucket and when he bent down to drink he pushed his head down under water with his foot and held him until he drowned.
Then there was Untersturmfuehrer Mueller… who used to practice the most incredible obscenities on the corpses when he was drunk. He was generally known as the ’crematorium clown’. Another of them, Emmerich, if he didn’t like anyone’s face, just ordered the guard to eliminate them. One couldn’t bear the cries and screams very long, and the smell used to remain in your nostrils for days.In modern times, no one singular act by a nation-state has captured the nightmares of civilization more than the Holocaust. The act, therefore, of bringing the enablers of this horrific genocide to justice as long as one walks this earth is vital.
The hunting down of war criminals sends a universal message that such unspeakable crimes will not be tolerated by a civil society. It tells potential perpetrators that there is no place to hide; that they will be hunted for the rest of their lives.
Indeed, were we not to have continued in our efforts against Nazi murderers would there have been any ethical justification for bringing brutes like former Liberian leader Charles Taylor to justice? Without fidelity to justice no matter how much time has elapsed could we justify the ongoing manhunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who ruined the lives of thousands of children by kidnapping them as child-soldiers?
The fact that the perpetrators and enablers of the Nazi genocide may today be elderly can be no reason to shirk our duty to the victims. We ought not see them as they are today, but should remember them for the thugs and murderers they were more than 65 years ago. To allow their crimes to go unpunished would give Nazism a posthumous victory and send a message of hope to the genocidaires of tomorrow.
At this time in human history we still face the specter of genocidal crime and mass murder. At a time when modern day war criminals look for sanctuary far from where they committed their crimes, we must not waver; doing so sends a message that if you can escape justice for 65 years, mass murder is of no relevance.
For the sake of the victims, we must demand continued justice with no get-out-of-jail-free card simply because you reached old age. It is no exaggeration to say that we must all be the protectors of our society and its values. We rely on our government to act on our behalf. As a society we must ensure fidelity to law because we understand that evil is possible but also that justice is achievable and in the end, we are all responsible.
We have a solemn obligation to the victims and the survivors alike to hold the wicked accountable for their heinous crimes and to effect some measure of justice for what they have done.
There is nothing supernatural about that.
Bernie M. Farber is the former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress. Today, he writes on human rights issues while working with Gemini Power Corporation building sustainable industry on First Nations Reserves.