Gross: Further prosecution doesn’t heal WWII wounds

Hailey Gross

Forgive but do not forget: a universal motto regarding the proper way to deal with offenses long past. A betrayal between two close friends might be a proper context for the phrase. But is it an acceptable selection of words in reference to the genocide of millions?

The current German government seems to think it isn’t.

Sixty-eight years after the end of World War II, German authorities are still pursuing former Auschwitz prison guards.

Auschwitz, the biggest and perhaps most well-known of the Nazi death camps, was solely responsible for the deaths of approximately 18 percent of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Of those who ran the camp, there have been cases of those who turn themselves in to authorities in repentance as well as those who have run or hidden, dreading prosecution. However, those initial responses were to be expected in the direct aftermath of the war.

More than half a century later, it seems impossible that Germans are still investigating and imprisoning war criminals.

German or Jewish families whose loved ones of previous generations have been killed or hurt in during the Holocaust seemingly have reason to continue to seek vengeance. BBC reports a Jewish group that continues to investigate Nazi crimes advertises the campaign of “Late — but not too late.”

The emotional scars borne by those affected by the Nazi’s awful crimes still bleed, even more than half a century later. But is punishment or retribution the proper way to mend the wounds of war?

Rainer Stickelberger, Germany’s state justice minister, has argued: “We cannot let the terrible memory of the crimes of Nazism fade away.”

Those high in the Nazi hierarchies were prosecuted decades ago, leaving these remaining offenders of lower ranks. The 30 or so men the German government looks to prosecute are all between the ages of 87 and 97 — old men with very little time left to live.

As individuals of such an advanced age, is it even worth it to imprison these men?

If imprisonment is meant as a form of punishment, then perhaps they should be prosecuted despite the many years that have passed since their crimes. But is spending the five or so years they probably have left to live in an environment where they are fed, clothed and medically furnished really a form of punishment at all?

Even if intended as a method of reform, prosecuting these men will not do much good. How much reform can be accomplished in the scant years they have left to live? Not much, considering that even life sentences are sometimes not considered long enough to “reform” some criminals.

All that imprisoning these octa- and nonagenarians will do is cost the taxpayers of Germany additional money. The medical and living expenses of the elderly are nothing to laugh at, and putting more than 30 of these men in prison will simply add to the government’s costs.

This isn’t to say that what these men did wasn’t bad. That argument in itself is another matter entirely; some may say that, under orders, men are not responsible for the actions taken during times of war. Others argue that a human sense of morality should have stopped these men from stripping, beating, starving and massacring millions of people.

Regardless of whether the men are “guilty” in the involvement of mass genocide is not the point. One way or another, the prosecution of these men is unnecessary.

“What about justice?” some may ask. If the men are truly guilty of the war crimes in which they are accused, spending their last days in prison does not even begin to atone for what they have done. So in that sense, justice, delivered by the regular systems of government, is basically impossible.

However, many people have something else in mind when they say justice. Many want the men to be imprisoned for a sense of retribution or personal vindication. They would have the men thrown in jail for the sake of a clearer conscience. This is equally wrong.

Despite the horrors committed in World War II, modern systems of justice operate on the premise that punishment is not dealt for personal revenge. Allowing extreme emotion into the courtroom, even in the most passionate of cases, compromises the quality or truth of any “justice” served.

Hearts still bleed for the victims of Nazi Germany’s atrocities, and those crimes should never be forgotten. But imprisoning men in their last decade at the cost of taxpayers’ dollars, simply to feel that revenge has been served, is not the path to healing the wounds of the Nazi regime.