It seems that ugly history cannot help but rear its ugly head; those moments which some would rather forget, and some would rather merely remember, cannot help but come and cause controversy once more.
Last month, a 94-year-old German man was charged with more than 3,600 counts of accessory to murder as a result of his role as an SS Medic within Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp, during the years of Hitler’s Holocaust atrocities.
It may seem strange, punishing an elderly man, who is inevitably in the final years of his life, for a crime that has seemingly been ignored for the previous 70 years; but it may surprise you as to the rate at which similar trials have been taking place recently.
In 2013, 30 people were recommended by the German government to face charges and be prosecuted for their involvement in the Holocaust during the 1930s and 40s. Three 93-year-olds are to stand in court on Holocaust charges. Oskar Groenig was an accountant at Auschwitz who was responsible for counting money, or calculating the worth of valuables from the belongings of victims and sending it to Berlin to help fund the Nazi regime. Hilde Michnia was a member of Nazi staff who allegedly forced thousands of women prisoners on a death march from the Grossen-Rosen concentration camp, an episode that left almost 1,500 dead.
The final man has not been named, but it is known that he was an SS Guard, responsible for deciding who of the prisoners should be forced into labour, and who should be sent immediately to the death chambers. He is being charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder.
Aware that time is quickly running out to prosecute those responsible for one of history’s greatest atrocities, investigators are seemingly desperate to restore justice. In the words of German prosecutor Andreas Brendel: “There is no statute of limitations on murder… It is very important that a German criminal process takes place and that the guilt of the offender is determined”. But 70 years on, we must question what we really know about the horrors of the Holocaust and its concentration camps.
Ignorance would perhaps be the wrong word to describe the current attitudes towards the Holocaust and the Second World War, but it is undeniable that our knowledge, whilst in some places thorough, in others is patchy and reliant on perhaps not-so-accurate recounts handed down through the generations of the 20th century. Even when it comes to Auschwitz, something that is considered one of the most crucial pieces of information in regards to the events of the war, it is clear that common knowledge upon the subject is flawed: the terms Auschwitz and Auschwitz II Birkenau are often used side by side and interchangeably, when in fact they represent different things. The term Auschwitz was the title for a large complex of camps: three big camps on the main site, around 45 smaller ones within the surrounding area, as well as the original Polish army barracks that was used primarily as a work camp. Birkenau was the name of one of the three larger camps; it contained the facilities used to gas, or otherwise horrifically murder prisoners, as well as the facilities for slave labour and medical experimentation.
Birkenau was home to many of the most explicitly horrendous activities that we associate with the Holocaust and concentration camps. The infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign, for instance, is at the gates of Auschwitz; the even more infamous gatehouse is at Auschwitz II Birkenau, yet the two are used interchangeably.
This is a perfect example of the 21st-Century attitudes towards the war. We understand that it was horrific, and we want to learn more, but there are still gaps in our knowledge.
Of course, it would be completely immoral to try and excuse the Holocaust or the actions of Hitler’s government; the evidence of pain, torture and the absolutely abhorrent conditions he forced upon the minorities of Europe is absolutely unforgivable. But, by punishing people seventy years on, who had seemingly been forgiven for their actions and were left to live their lives peacefully for a long time, are we just racing to try and satisfy our own conscience?