The Pursuit of Guilt: Germany's Final Roundup of War Criminals

As a young Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army stationed in Vienna at the end of the Second World War, GORDON BROOK-SHEPHERD first became involved in the manhunt for Nazi war criminals. He here explains how the Germans themselves have maintained their search despite the resistance of former SS officers, and why the roundup will be brought to an end next May. Diplomatic editor of the London SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, Mr. Brook-Shepherd is the author of five books on modern history.

THEY guard it well, the conscience of the new Germany. You first approach it through a wooden door set in the thick yellow flanks of an eighteenth-century building on Ludwigsburg’s Schorndorferstrasse. Only when this plain varnished door shuts behind you do you realize that you are in fact inside the Landesgefängnis, or Central Prison, of Baden-Württemberg.

Two massive iron gates, each made of squares with bars one inch thick, have to be passed in succession before the prison courtyard is reached. On the left, the entrance guards sit in their glass-lined kiosk, clearing your progress by telephone and electronic buttons. In their neat, short-sleeved summer uniforms and peaked caps they look absurdly like the bridge-room crew of some Swiss lake steamer.

On the right, a showcase displays “Things made by our Prisoners” — models of stags in wood, shopping bags of woven plastic, trays with crude inlay designs of William Tell aiming at the apple on his son’s head. “The proceeds,” a notice says, “go to dependents.” To underline the point, a metal collection box is also clamped to the wall. Its slit of a mouth is dusty, and its throat looks parched.

From the courtyard, another guard leads you into the administration building, the ground floor of which is devoted solely to prison matters — “Education,” “Medical,” “Stores,” say the signposts which jut out stiffly from each door. Then you go up a flight of stairs to a very different row of rooms. These are white-painted and noncommittal, with nothing more than a small typewritten name card on each door. It might be a corridor in a modern hospital. In fact, you have entered the headquarters of an organization where the Germany of today pursues its Nazi past.

Its title is very German, and the uninitiated has to breathe very deeply before embarking on Die Zentralc Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Verfolgung nationalsozialistischer Gewaltverbrechen, or “Headquarters of the provincial government judiciaries for the prosecution of national-socialist crimes of violence.” It is mercifully known as the “Ludwigsburg Zentrale” for short.

Its history is also very German — the post-war Germany, that is, of the Federal Republic of Bonn, with its improvisations and its club-footed sovereignty. For the first ten years after the war, responsibility for the prosecution of German war crimes rested with the four Occupation powers. The sentencing of the twenty-two principal surviving Nazis at Nuremberg in October, 1946, was all that caught the public eye. But Allied justice also operated in those years on a broader front. A total of 5025 Germans were sentenced for war crimes in the three Western zones, 806 of them to death. The figures for the Soviet zone are unknown. Most estimates agree that they must have been at least twice as high.

Then, in 1955, West Germany became virtually sovereign. The Bonn authorities, who had already been allowed to prosecute Germans for crimes committed against other Germans in Germany itself, were now also charged with bringing their citizens to justice for wartime atrocities against other nationals abroad. Free Germany’s final pursuit of her own past had begun.

For some time after the official start, however, nothing much moved in this wider field. These were the years of the honey bee that followed on the years of the locust. West Germany was wallowing happily in her “economic miracle.” To jump backward gratuitously into the black, bleak era of Hitlerism, which everyone hoped had closed, was asking quite a lot.

Public apathy was further pinned down by the sheer weight of the Allies’ own record of warcrimes prosecution, and especially by the dramatic bonfire of the Nuremberg Trials. This still seemed to glow as the sacrificial pyre of all Nazi sins, which had purged the German nation, as well as it had consumed the Hitler hierarchy, in its flames.

But the Germans were soon to learn that, though their own war guilt as a people had certainly been overplayed after the defeat of 1918, it had just as surely been underplayed after the defeat of 1945. There was a national debt still to pay for the scars the swastika had left on Europe, a debt not written off by the punishment of those twenty-two archvillains of the tragedy.

THE extent of this debt was first foreshadowed in the testimonies of the thousands of German prisoners of war who began to return from Russia in 1956. It was fully revealed by the trial at Ulm in the summer of 1958 of former members of the wartime Gestapo group at Tilsit on charges of the mass murder of Jews. What was said in that courtroom at Ulm, by both witnesses and accused, showed that hundreds of Germans were still running around free and unpunished for crimes committed abroad in Germany’s name.

The shock to both public and official conscience was a sharp one. But so was the reaction. In October of that same year, the ministers of justice and senators of all eleven German Länder met at Bad Harzburg to examine what should be done. Six weeks later, on December 1, 1958, the Zentrale Stelle at Ludwigsburg had already come into operation — a centralized cooperative effort by lawyers and police officials, drawn from every province of the state, to dig up the dark truth about Nazi crimes lying buried in Germany or anywhere else in the world.

The head of this office, whom I had come to meet, was Dr. Erwin Schüle, a German jurist of impeccable integrity. I remember thinking as I entered his room, “If this isn’t the Good German of fact or fiction, where is he?”

Dr. Schüle turned out to be an attractive beaknosed man in his early fifties. He was wearing a striped bow tie and the sort of light-blue flannel suit I have so often seen on Mr. Khrushchev on his travels abroad. This color was matched by his eyes, which were about the bluest and keenest a man could have. It was a face of utter frankness, fearlessness, and friendliness. The German conscience seemed to be in good hands.

His office was as cheerful and informal as himself and looked like anything but a High Court of Inquest into villainy. There was the obligatory German Gummibaum, or shiny indoor plant, swaying up from a pot behind his desk like some green snake. Opposite was the equally typical Sitzecke — a small table for guests, with four chairs covered in brilliant red and yellow plastic. It could have been a corner of a travel bureau.

There were, in fact, maps on the wall, though any illusion they might have added disappeared on closer inspection. One was a large-scale generalstaff map of Poland, the scene of most Nazi atrocities abroad. The other was without a doubt the grimmest map I have ever gazed upon. The chart was named simply “Deutschland 1945,” yet it showed no rivers, roads, or towns. It was covered instead with a rash of large and small dots and triangles. Each symbol represented a Nazi concentration camp, Gestapo headquarters, or field unit. Extermination centers were marked by a black-ink cross. This pattern of death had been hand-drawn dot by dot over the past six years as the evidence had grown; it was probably the only completely accurate map of the Hitler terror in existence anywhere. With relief, we got back to the gaily colored chairs in the Sitzecke.

The fact that the map was unique and had to be constructed inch by inch by Dr. Schüle’s staff is typical of the whole story of the Ludwigsburg Center. When it started in 1958, there were practically no records available to launch it on its task, which was defined as the uncovering of crimes committed by Germans against civilians outside German territory and outside the framework of military operations.

The mountain of relevant Nazi documents to survive the holocaust of 1945 had been carted off by the victors and were now distributed in heaps all over the world: at the Wiener Library in London; at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris; at the Institut Yad Washem in Jerusalem; at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam; and, in American hands, at the U.S. Document Center in Berlin, the National Archives in Washington, and the World War II Records Division at Alexandria, Virginia.

Dr. Schüle traveled the world in search of cooperation. and he got it. Millions of documents were microfilmed; hundreds of Nazi personnel rolls examined and compared; and thousands of survivors of those wartime atrocities identified, sought out, and interrogated. Sometimes their evidence was easy to get and repetitive. Sometimes it was both elusive and unique. For example, the sole surviving witness the Center could find of the massacre of 600,000 Jews at the isolated Polish extermination center of Belzec near Lublin was a broken old man, more than eighty years of age, whom they stumbled upon living in Canada.

By this combination of hard work and chance, the evidence piled up like a paper dam behind the yellow walls of the Ludwigsburg prison. The card index room, which I inspected, started at zero. It now has more than 160,000 entries, all crossreferenced in rows of steel cabinets. Any name or place. I could think of with Nazi associations was produced within seconds. This was, justly, the pride of the whole Center. The Republic is being as thorough in retribution as the Third Reich was thorough in terror.

But the comparison ends at thoroughness. The Center should not be thought of as another flaming sword, even of democratic steel, that can strike out where it pleases with special powers. It has, in fact, no executive authority at all. Its task is solely to collect the evidence against an individual. Furthermore, this evidence is concerned not with War Crimes in the quasi-political Nuremberg sense, but rather with crimes committed during war —the ordinary crimes of murder and manslaughter whose punishment is provided for in the ordinary German criminal code. There is no Lex Ludwigsborgiensis.

Once the dossiers have been completed along these lines, the Center hands them over to the public prosecutor of the Land concerned. From then on, though the Center can advise, it plays no part in the trial and sentencing of the accused, which, again, are conducted within the existing legal framework of the state. Thus, to take the most famous case, the Center provided the bulk of the 80 volumes of evidence, containing some 16,000 pages of testimony from 250 witnesses, used throughout the summer in the mammoth trial of former SS personnel from the Auschwitz concentration camp. But all responsibility for the case rests with Generalstaatsanwalt Bauer, the state prosecutor of Frankfurt, where the trial was held.

There are two other limitations, one from the past and one from the future. None of those 5025 German war criminals sentenced by the Allies between 1945 and 1955 can ever be brought to trial again, despite the fact that fresh and more damning charges against many of them are constantly coming to light. The curb from the future arises precisely out of the fact that Ludwigsburg operates inside and not outside the existing code of criminal law. This lays down that even capital crimes such as murder cannot be prosecuted twenty years after the deed. In other words, as of May 1, 1965, the Research Center must close its books, and Germany’s phase of active retribution will come to an end. This is not, as has so often and so wrongly been represented abroad, a “special political amnesty for Nazis.” It is the very opposite: the inviolable concession that ordinary German law, in common with many other legal systems, makes to every ordinary criminal.

NINETEEN years ago, as a young British staff officer, I was Military Secretary to the first and only Four-power Denazification Committee, set up by the Allies in post-war Austria. From those Vienna days, I remember well the impossibility of defining guilt by rota, the maddening task of trapping some of those villains of the Nazi era who wriggled unscathed through the broad meshes of our Allied justice because they had worn no party badge which caught them up. What, I asked Dr. Schüle with a very personal curiosity, had he achieved in six years, and how satisfied was he that his mission was really complete?

“So far,” he replied, “we have instigated about 600 prosecutions against major criminals. I estimate we have about another 120 to 130 cases to complete and hand over for action before we close our lists next spring. I am quite Satisfied that this will represent the vast bulk of all the German war crimes that were still undetected when we started. I am convinced that it represents virtually 100 percent of all the major cases.

“You see, we have established that a lot of the mass extermination atrocities were committed by a fairly restricted group of SS or Gestapo people, and often by the same ‘special units’ used in a mobile role. New individual acts of brutality could always still emerge of course, but the big deeds of organized crime are virtually all mapped out by now. We have checked and rechecked too often to be caught out here.

“And please don’t forget that none of these cases we already have on our files will benefit by the twenty-year rule, even if we cannot trace or lay our hands on the accused at the moment. The mere fact that our dossier on them is lodged with a public prosecutor’s office and that a warrant has been taken out there will keep the charge perpetually ‘active.’ The only people who could benefit by the twenty-year rule are German war criminals still totally unknown to us when we close the records next May. For the reasons I have given, they will be extremely few and far between.”

I then broached the other topic that had drawn me to Ludwigsburg. How did the West German people as a whole regard the Research Center’s work? How did they react to this merciless probing of nerves still raw and memories still haunting? Could one infer form this public reaction whether there really was a “new” Germany or not?

Curiously enough, no nationwide opinion poll seemed to have been taken on this subject, despite lively public discussion over the grim story unfolding week by week in the Frankfurt witness-box. One had to rely on unpublished official soundings of opinion, supported by personal observation. Dr. Schüle’s own verdict, which represented the findings of his investigation teams working in every province of Germany, was this:

“It is largely a problem of generations. The older generation — people of sixty or over — are, on the whole, against our work. Some question our right to indict the Nazis at all. All question the wisdom or ethics of doing so after so many years. Even people of this group who are stained with no personal guilt from the Nazi era share this view. It is because they all have a sense of indirect guilt. These were the men — at that time in their forties or fifties — who were then influential in their particular calling, whether as architect, soldier, surgeon, or bank manager. They feel, therefore, that it is their life that is being condemned and their moral cowardice in tolerating Hitler that we are indicting.

“The middle-aged, those of forty-five to sixty — my contemporaries, if you like — are of two minds, though I don’t need to tell you which view I hold or I wouldn’t be doing this job. This group in the main supports our work, but many have reservations. These were the people who held junior posts in the Nazi era. I, for example, was a young frontline infantry officer in Russia for most of the war, having managed to avoid any party entanglements as a law student just before the war. Though my age group had relatively little say in those days, we were, after all, somewhere on the stage, and there is the uneasy feeling now that we allowed ourselves to be duped. This often leads to an ambivalent attitude about Ludwigsburg’s work.

“But the important thing is the youth, the people unborn in Hitler’s day. All our experience shows that they, in the mass, support us almost unreservedly. They clamor the whole time for knowledge about an era which, at home, their parents so often refuse to discuss with them, and which their schoolteachers have usually failed to put into perspective. And the more they learn about the Nazi past, the more they demand the punishment of the guilty. I suppose psychologists might also read into this some confused battle of the generations; but for me it is enough to know the plain fact that our new citizens, the first pure post-Hitler Germans, are on our side.'’

As regards official Germany, Dr. Schüle wound up by saying that support from all three West German parties was solid and unflinching. Nor had he encountered a single case of obstruction in the judicial machinery. He did comment here, with a wry smile, that every now and then he was rather surprised by the “mild sentences” passed on some of his cases. He was quick to add, as a good lawyer, that any case as actually fought out through a court can look very different at the end from the original indictment.

The number of neo-Nazis still surviving, declared and unrepentant, seems to be steadily shrinking. Figures published this June by the Bonn Ministry of Interior put the total membership of all rightwing extremist groups at 24,600, a further decline of 3000 since the previous year.

But, like a tiny core which gets harder the more it is squeezed, these 24,600 fanatics, who are divided into four main factions and 115 splinter groups, have proved capable of daring acts of defiance. The most impressive of these was the escape, in April, of the former SS Lieutenant Walter ZechNenntwich, who was spirited out of his Brunswick jail into safe exile in Egypt only forty-eight hours after receiving a four-year term for war crimes. He was the first sentenced Nazi to escape, though two more of his ilk, Reinhold Vorberg and Gerhard Bohne, managed to slip out of the country while awaiting trial last year.

The Zech-Nenntwich escape infuriated Ludwigsburg as it infuriated most of Germany (East and West). The Federal police have now uncovered the exact route the escape party took and most of the accomplices involved. Some were neo-Nazi; some merely venal. Precautions have been tightened, and the audacious operation is not likely to be repeated.

I found Dr. Schüle more concerned with his inability to get these and other men back from their safe perches in foreign exile despite the strongest diplomatic steps by the Bonn government. Twentyfive identified, known, and wanted German Nazi war criminals are still mocking their pursuers from abroad — mostly in Egypt, Spain, and Latin America. The motives of the various “host” governments in rejecting pleas for extradition are varied. They range from the ideological sympathy of an extreme right-wing regime, as in the case of Franco’s Spain and some Latin-American countries, to blatant expediency, as with Nasser’s Egypt, where Nazi war criminals are among the German advisers helping to run the Egyptian propaganda machine and missile-construction program.

In one notorious case, concerning the economically underdeveloped and politically overdeveloped black dictatorship of Nkrumah’s Ghana, the reason seems to be a blend of both. Here a certain Dr. Schumann, wanted by Ludwigsburg on grave charges of crimes committed as a concentration camp doctor, has defied all Bonn’s extradition bids and lives an unmolested well-paid existence as a senior official of the state medical service.

Dr. Schüle is understandably bitter about the twenty or so quarries still denied to him by the willful noncooperation of foreign governments. “Here are cases,” was his comment, “where both the Center and the German government have done all that the outside world has asked; yet it is the outside world that stops us from finishing the job.”

SO MUCH for Ludwigsburg’s judgment on itself. Of the firm backing by the authorities I have no doubt, having convinced myself of this during many visits to Bonn. But is Dr. Schüle’s division of the public opinion according to the three generations too neat and ready-made?

On the whole, I think not. Within the broad margins of error of any such generalization, I have found that his.breakdown of attitude by age-groups seems to emerge whenever and wherever one discusses Nazism in West Germany today. The whitehaired, if they can be brought to talk about the past at all, usually produce a stereotyped defense of their behavior, and then sweep the whole topic under the conversational rug. The gray-haired are usually prepared to talk about it rationally but often with a shrug of the shoulders. Only the young show burning curiosity and indignation in what seems to be roughly equal proportions.

That a healthy majority of the post-Nazi generation today condemn the Hitlerism they never knew is borne out by an interesting study of the political opinions of the 1940—1946 age-groups recently made by the West German sociologist Professor Walter Jaide (“Das Verhältnis der Jugend zur Politik”). On the scientific polling sample system, 2063 youths between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four were chosen from all areas and classes of West Germany and questioned, among other things, as to their views about Hitler and his movement.

Seventy-four percent condemned him either utterly or substantially; 16 percent could give no opinion; 7 percent accorded the Führer “more good points than bad”; 3 percent supported him. Of the three quarters who condemned him, 45 percent gave his racial persecutions as their main reason; 19 percent his megalomania and war guilt; 18 percent his abuse of power; 12 percent the murders and other crimes of the concentration camps; 4 percent his antireligious policies. Only one percent produced that dangerously pragmatic argument that he failed in the end.

The most striking thing I have found in the attitude of young Germans toward their past is that, quite apart from condemning their Nazi forefathers, they also simply fail to recognize them. I remember being shown by one of Dr. Schüle’s young assistants (who would have been barely of school age when Hitler died) a photostat of one of the most horrible of all the documents the director had brought back from Washington.

It was a technical report, drawn up in Berlin on June 5, 1942, to examine how the first three prototype mobile gas chambers, which had been designed and used for exterminating Jews for more than nine months, were standing up to wear. The report carried the highest secret grading of Geheime Reichssache, and only this one single copy had been ordered to be made.

Yet despite this thick security screen, all direct reference to the evil purpose of these contraptions was avoided. The vehicles were called simply “special trucks.”It was noted that since December, 1941, “97,000 had been processed without material damage to the equipment.” There was no reference to people, let alone Jews. As to murder, what was inside had been simply “processed.” One improvement was recommended: a strengthening of the rear doors, against which the “cargo” tended to “gather and push.”

The young official had read this appalling paper a hundred times or more, yet his reaction was still the same: not only horror at the atrocity but bewilderment at the cold-blooded indifference — that Ate, or moral blindness, against which the ancient Greeks had warned.

“As far as I and my friends are concerned,” the young German said, “people who could act and think like that are not just monsters; they are Mars men. They seem so remote that it is difficult even to hate them as one should.”

I am sure he spoke truthfully and sincerely. Yet his words worried as well as comforted me. No nation can jump from its own shadow. Any people, to be healthy, must learn to live organically with its roots, all its roots, however rank some of these may smell. But this young man, and all like him, were slicing off their roots at ground level, in plain unbelief as well as distaste.

The West German story just cannot end like this. There is one last phase of denazification it must still go through when Ludwigsburg closes its dossiers and its iron gates. It is a phase of absorption, rather than rejection, an inner phase that no court can order, no book can teach.