Forgetting is a choice (unless you have Alzheimer’s)

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!

inmonsterbadgeI would be delighted to hear your take on this debate, a critique of the writing itself, and anything else you would like to share!

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8 comments

  1. Seems a brain-dead exercise. These bully-boys would have been endangering their pensions – and next lunch – by saying, ‘Nien, nein,’ to the postings.
    It would seem of more value to examine whether these men have, since, done anything to justify their continued supply of oxygen and rations.

    1. Do you mean whether they have repented in some way? I do see the “they were just following commands” argument, but I don’t think it’s an excuse for the extent of the trauma they inflicted. It would have been more feasible for a German soldier to desert and escape than for any of the people they persecuted to do so.

      1. I do mean, whether any later contribution to society has offset, to any degree, what they did.

        Put yourself in the position of the average Nazi – do you really believe that principles would have overcome your conditioning and fear? You were brainwashed into thinking that what you were doing was OK, and then you knew full well that your chances of escape from the ruthlessly efficient system were remarkably slim.

        1. I see what you’re saying, but I have not found evidence that any of the people on trial did anything to offset the murder in their pasts. It appears that most of them lied in order to gain citizenship elsewhere or lived under false names, and then lived out their lives normally, not in any philanthropic capacity. This article from last fall gives more detail about one man in particular. He took on a new name to evade authorities from his home country and ran a fencing business.

          And although I understand that years of propaganda went into conditioning soldiers to support the ruthlessly efficient Nazi movement, I am less sympathetic toward those who were on the side with guns.

          1. I am still inclined to believe that they can be equated with these fanatical religionists who murder and commit atrocities in the thought that this is ensuring them a place in heaven. Those espousing the religion are the ones to blame more than the poor brainwashed idiots.
            Don’t forget that to the fanatical Nazi, the death camps were no more than a vermin extermination system.

  2. Wow. I didn’t even know this was going on. I guess I assumed they were all dead/brought to justice already.

    And my first instinct is an aversion to throwing a 90-year-old in prison, and a thought that…I don’t know, it seems weird to go after them now, when how much longer are they going to live, anyway?

    But then I think about the survivors who are still alive…that even at 90 or whatever age, they are still living with the horror and pain of the Holocaust – imagine them knowing that the men responsible are living presumably comfortable lives, just because the Powers That Be say “Well, it was so LONG ago…”

    In the end, I don’t feel I have the right to judge. Bring these people before a jury of Holocaust survivors. Let the victims decide whether or not to forgive them.

    1. I know exactly what you mean about that initial “Wait, are WE being inhumane by tossing old people in jail?” But then I consider the 70 years they had to reflect on what they did, knowing that if justice were being done, they would be behind bars. And they did not come forward, they did not offer assistance to the victims (I assume there would be some press about this if they had). They lived, at least outwardly, as though they had played no role in this murderous movement.

      I think Kurt Schrimm from one of the prosecutors’ offices boils it down most clearly when he says that they’re not after Nazis, they’re after murderers. The murders happened to BE Nazis, and their crimes were decades ago, but there is no statute of limitations on murder for a reason. Society thinks it’s kind of a big deal.

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Stephanie!

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