Is it time to stop hunting Nazi war criminals?

The recent death of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke in Italy has re-opened a debate about whether or not it is now time to draw a line under Hitler’s atrocities.

Priebke massacred 335 civilians at Ardeatine near Rome in 1944, on direct orders from Hitler personally. 75 Jews were amongst the 335 – this being an attack in reprisal for actions by the Italian resistance rather than part of the planned extermination of the Jewish people.

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Eisenach Synagogue burning on the morning of 10th November 1938.
Photo Eisenach State Archives

We are approaching the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, arguably the start of the holocaust, and with the passage of time some people argue that pursuing those who may have been involved – to search out and prosecute the perpetrators – is an act of vengeance rather than justice.

There are two main arguments against pursuing the guilty: one says that the passage of time is too great; and the the second says that forgiveness and compassion should be shown to what are now very elderly and sometimes extremely frail people.

There are problems with both arguments.

Regarding the passage of time: there are crimes that are covered by the statute of limitations. The lower the element of criminality, the less time available for the bringing of a prosecution. Different time limits apply in different countries; but in England the prosecution generally has just six months to bring charges for summary offences (those crimes which are heard only in a Magistrates’ Court). But the most serious crimes, including murder, have no time limit.

If you wish to argue that the holocaust was too long ago to pursue today, you need to say how long is too long. Turn the question around: if a person murders somebody today, how long must they hide away before they can be free of the risk of prosecution? 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? Longer?

And what about killers who have been sentenced to life without chance of parole? If people who have not been convicted after a period of time can be considered free; why can’t those in prison also assume the same freedom with the passage of time? Should Ian Brady, Robert Maudsley, Dennis Nilsen, Robert Black, Rosemary West and their ilk be freed?

No. The law recognises that some crimes are so serious that redemption can’t come automatically with the passage of time. So this brings us onto the next argument: the age of the accused.

There are problems with this argument too. If you don’t prosecute people because they are old, what happens when old people commit crimes, such as 96-year-old Amanda Rice Stevenson who shot and killed her 53-year-old nephew Johnny Rice in Florida in September 2011?

Of course you don’t become above the law simply because you are old. What happens, as in the case of Amanda Rice Stevenson, is that the authorities determine whether or not you are fit to stand trial. Stevenson was found to not have the mental capacity to stand trial, but it wasn’t automatic. Each case is decided on its merits.

Erich Priebke was discovered living in Argentina and brought to Italy for trial. After his conviction it was decided that he was too old to serve his sentence in jail and he was placed instead under house arrest. His trial and conviction was not about vengeance but justice. And justice was done.

The Holocaust is not merely an historic event, something very bad that happened a long time ago in a land far away. It was the systematic genocide of more than six million people, mainly Jews. It happened in living memory. I have met and interviewed Holocaust survivors. It happened, in part, in a land within sight of England.

Two thirds of Europe’s Jews (an estimated one third of all Jews in the world) were slaughtered by Hitler’s ruthless inhumane killing machine. Hitler could not have done this by himself. It was a major industrial process involving thousands of people. Many of those involved died in the war, or were captured soon afterwards. But many escaped to live a secret life, hiding their past involvement as accomplices and co-conspirators to mass murder.

It is only right and just that they should be found and brought to justice. Yes, questions must be asked about their fitness to stand trial; but where possible and appropriate justice must be done.

The passage of time cannot be allowed to be a defence to genocide or other war crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

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