In September of last year, the German authorities decided to investigate and prosecute former Nazi death camp guards as accessories to murder before they were all dead. Remember that WWII was almost 70 years ago now, so survivors on all sides are dwindling. This has been in the news lately because several men in their late 80s and early 90s are currently facing trial, which led the boyfriend and I to a good-natured debate.
We weren’t debating whether or not the men had committed crimes, but rather whether this was a good use of resources. D says there are atrocities being committed by government forces today (mainly referring to US operations in the Middle East) that we need to focus on, instead of wasting time on 90-year-old men who committed crimes 70 years ago. I see his point, and perhaps if there were a direct and inverse relationship between investigating current and historical crimes, I would agree. But before this decision to investigate Germany’s past was made, was the public any more aware of what was going on elsewhere in the world than we are now?
I certainly don’t think so, and I actually think that revisiting the past in cases like this can better illuminate current events and trends. But to allow criminals of any age to live out their days unrecognized, to let perpetrators and their crimes slip silently into the past, to let us choose to forget, is no better than what a majority of people do in the face of today’s horrors: choose to ignore.
D asks, isn’t it more important to stop crimes against humanity today than to seek out, investigate, and jail geriatric criminals whom the history books have already condemned? He finds it frustrating that because these men are labeled ‘Nazis’ and played a role in the Holocaust specifically, they are given more attention than others who are still active and need to be stopped.
First, as the head of a special prosecutor’s office in Germany said,
We don’t pursue Nazis, we pursue murderers.
The men are not being investigated because of the uniform they wore, but because of what they did while wearing it. My other issue with this view is that it seems to put a statute of limitations on murder investigations and could even be seen to reward criminals for our failure to prosecute them.The fact that men who burned entire village populations inside barns and funneled people into chambers of death lived with no consequence for 70 years is criminal in itself, and it is certainly not a good reason to avoid investigation now that we have information go on.
And the availability of information is another complication in comparing the investigation of decades-old crimes to those of today. The general public and even law enforcement agencies do not have access to the kind of information about, say, US drone operations in Yemen last year that they do after 70 years of searching for and compiling WWII documentation.
D’s rebuttal is that it’s not acceptable for us to know that crimes against humanity are being committed right now but just to wait for society to condemn those involved in the future, like we did the Nazis. And he’s right: it’s not acceptable.
But the solution is not to choose to forget the past. We need to keep history in our present if we are to prevent its repetition. We need to make it clear that no matter how long you get away with it, you will still be held accountable for your actions. After WWII the Germans were instilled with an ethic of nie wieder: never again. This intention is meaningless if we allow the past to become nothing more than a few pages in a history book or a black and white special on the History Channel.
This post was written in response to an Inspiration Monday prompt: Choose to forget. Go visit be kind Rewrite to pick up your dose of inspiration and friendly writing community!