STUTTGART, Germany -- After years of relative inaction, German prosecutors have opened dozens of fresh investigations of men and women suspected of having served as Nazi death camp guards, racing against the clock to bring the aging suspects to justice. Not since the end of World War II have so many cases been initiated at once.
The surge of cases is being driven by a new generation of prosecutors -- the "grandchildren generation," as they are known here -- who bring a less conflicted view of culpability to crimes committed during the war, and who were given a legal opening with the 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, a former Sobibor death camp guard who spent years as an Ohio autoworker.
Prosecutors are now applying modern advances to historical crimes, such as three-dimensional virtual models of camps to demonstrate what guards would have been able to see from their posts, as well as spreadsheets and databases to glean critical evidence from reams of Nazi archival material.
Since March alone, prosecutors from Stuttgart to Schwerin and Hamburg to Frankfurt have opened inquiries against men and women suspected of playing a role in the functioning of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, cases that could eventually lead to charges of complicity in the murder of tens of thousands of the more than 1 million Jews and others who perished there.
The youngest of the suspects are well into their 80s and have lived freely in Germany for decades. Among them is a woman from Hamburg who is in her 90s and served as an Auschwitz-Birkenau guard from September to October 1944, prosecutors say. Another is a 93-year-old man who worked as a camp paramedic in 1944. He was arrested in March after a search of his home in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
The advanced age of the often-frail suspects has brought forth sympathy among some in Germany, raising questions of whether it is just to pursue prosecutions now after having let them live so many years in peace. But the prevailing sentiment in German news media and public discussions is that Nazi-era crimes are better pursued late than never.
"It is often asserted, and is true, and has been taken for granted as something that was unavoidable, that most perpetrators of the Holocaust were never held accountable for their crimes or even called before a court," said Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "The failure to bring more Holocaust perpetrators to justice was not unavoidable, but at the time the law was not equipped to deal with crimes committed on such a monumental scale. It has taken decades of hard work to develop the law and legal precedent necessary to fix this."
The key precedent was provided by the Demjanjuk case, in which a Munich state court convicted the former death camp guard of accessory to the murder of all 28,060 people who died during the time he served there. That ruling overturned a precedent that had required evidence linking suspects to a specific killing, which had stood since 1969. The judge further found that it was impossible for anyone who worked at Sobibor, a relatively small camp, not to be considered a part of the Nazi's machinery of mass murder.
Since then, German federal prosecutors tasked with investigating Nazi war crimes have reopened dozens of files on former guards whose whereabouts had long been known to authorities. The cases steadily trickled through Germany's decentralized justice system until September, when federal prosecutors recommended that authorities in 11 of Germany's 16 states pursue charges against 30 former guards.
But while the Demjanjuk ruling removed the burden of linking guards to a specific death, prosecutors continue to face the burden of proving what suspects knew about the industrial-scale killing occurring around them.