Several years ago, Nazi hunters began what they called a “last chance” search for Holocaust-era war criminals. They were right to insist that there can never be a statute of limitations on genocide.
Their commitment to bring to justice those who aided and abetted the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe and millions of others in World War II continues to produce results.
Just a few weeks ago, for instance, a judge in Germany sentenced a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard to five years in jail. Reinhold Hanning was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people at what became the Holocaust’s Ground Zero, one of the six death camps the Germans built in occupied Poland.
It may seem heartless and pointless after all these years to punish an old man for what he did more than 70 years ago. But it is neither. It is, rather, an expression of the world’s commitment never to forget what Adolf Hitler’s heartless death machine did.
And there was no question of Hanning’s guilt even after the passage of so much time. Judge Anke Grudda said there was no doubt that Hanning, whom she called a “willing and efficient henchman,” chose to serve at Auschwitz and, in fact, had helped to run it. “It is not true,” she told him, “that you had no choice; you could have asked to be transferred to the war front.”
It’s unclear how many elderly Nazis still live beyond the reach of the law, but the search for them serves the interests of justice and of a full accounting of the crimes that the homicidal Hitler regime committed.
This case was also a blunt reminder of where racial and ethnic hatred — anytime, anywhere — can lead. Hitler used the simmering anti-Semitism deeply embedded in German culture to move toward destruction of European Jewry, a diabolical scheme that almost succeeded.
History never repeats itself precisely. Conditions and attitudes change. But people everywhere, including here in the U.S. in the midst of this bitter political season, always should be on guard against bigotry of any kind, knowing that any fair reading of history shows the appalling extremes to which it can go.
If the post-Holocaust cry of “Never again” is to be honored, voices of reason must speak out clearly whenever prejudice appears and begins to stir up hatred — whether it’s aimed at Syrian refugees, members of the LGBT community, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, women or anyone else.
The German court played that speaking-out role in finding Hanning guilty and sending him to jail.
As useful as a historical accounting can be, pursuing these old criminals also can educate new generations about where bigotry and hatred can lead. Without such efforts, the lies told by Holocaust deniers — and there are many of them — can find gullible minds in a world in which anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, is distressingly resurgent.
Against that kind of hatred, the conviction of another Nazi is a message that the civilized world rejects bigotry and seeks instead a world in which everyone is respected and in which all people — including death camp employees — are accountable for their actions.
While it’s crucial to remember the crimes of seven and eight decades ago, it’s even more important to stop anything similar from happening today.