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Germany continues to grapple with Nazi-era legacy

March 1, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
Nearly seventy years after the end of World War II, the German government is intensifying its efforts to educate young Germans about Nazi war crimes and continues to pursue prosecution for those who committed them. William Brangham reports from Ludwigsburg, Germany.
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TRANSCRIPT

This report was originally broadcast on January 12, 2014.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  From the outside, it looks like a beautiful old estate, but this is no private residence. Inside, investigators for the German Federal Government are poring through decades old records, searching for the last remaining Nazi war criminals who might have escaped justice.

This is part of a much broader national effort underway in Germany to wrestle with the legacy of the holocaust… it includes the construction of memorials and museums at a record pace —  the revamping of the nation’s curriculum so that all German school kids get a fuller understanding of the Nazi era.

But perhaps few are as crucial to this effort as this man.  His name is Kurt Schrimm, and he runs the central office in Germany that’s still trying to bring former Nazis to justice.

KURT SCHRIMM: (translated from German) Right now only murder is punishable. All other crimes have passed the statute of limitations and can no longer be punished.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thirty one years ago, Schrimm was a local public prosecutor investigating robberies, murders and gun crimes… but when this history buff heard of an opening in a regional office investigating war criminals, he jumped at the chance.  And soon after, a conversation with one Holocaust survivor drove home the importance of this work.

KURT SCHRIM: (translated from German) I met an elderly Jewish lady in New York at the end of the 1980’s who had survived the war. She said “I’ve been waiting more than 40 years for a German official to be interested in my case.” She told me “it doesn’t matter whether this person is put to trial or goes to prison; the most important thing is that you listened to my story.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   Schrimm would like to see the men he’s investigating prosecuted… but establishing their guilt in court has been complicated….   Following World War II, to convict a German soldier of murder, prosecutors had to prove a direct, personal responsibility for the killing of an innocent person.

But several years ago, Germany successfully prosecuted 91 year-old retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk with being an accessory to the murders committed while he was a guard at the Nazi’s Sobibor death camp.…and now Schrimm is hoping to use that legal precedent to prosecute dozens of others, including guards who worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

To build their cases, they’ve not only talked to survivors… but drawing on the Nazis own meticulous records and maps of the camps, investigators try to determine if guards, or even low-level workers like cooks, knew about, or witnessed the genocide.

KURT SCHRIMM: (translated from German) For these cases we went to Auschwitz personally and looked at the whole camp and checked whether it was possible to see from the kitchen whether a new train of prisoners was arriving, or whether you could see the gas chambers.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   After completing their investigation, Schrimm’s office has recommended that thirty former Auschwitz guards – men now in their late 80s and 90s – be prosecuted as accessories to murder.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Given that many of these men are in their mid to late 90s, and many of them may not even live to see a trial, let alone a prison cell, how much of this, do you believe, is symbolism, and how much of this justice being served?

KURT SCHRIM:  (translated from German) I think on one hand it’s important for the survivors, for the victims, that these cases are investigated. On the other hand, it’s also important for Germany. Germany during the war committed such terrible crimes that, after the war, Germany had a terrible reputation.  So we try to improve that reputation by prosecuting these cases.

ERNST GRUBE: (translated from German) The current generation no longer has to confront what happened, so in my opinion, the Demianiuk trials, and these 30 or however many names that were found, they have a function to explain again to people what happened — the crimes of that period.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Ernst Grube is an 81 year-old Holocaust survivor. As a child growing up in Munich, he and his family lived right next to the old Jewish synagogue, which the Nazis destroyed… he and his family were eventually sent to a concentration camp.  (we sat down in Munich’s Jewish museum, directly across from the newly built synagogue.)

Grube says the priority today must be to understand the roots of those crimes, not just prosecuting the perpetrators of them.

WILLLIAM BRANGHAM: As somone who has witnessed these crimes firsthand, it seems you must have a very personal connection to these prosecutions?

ERNST GRUBE: (translated from German) Given that, apart from my parents, all our family was killed, it goes without saying that it‘s always a difficult moment for me, and the older I get, the more emotional the impact it has on me.  But it can’t be about that. We want the words we say to help make sure these crimes don’t happen again.  The emphasis should be on the time running up to the war, and, of course, what’s happening today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   What’s happening today, is the rise of what Grube believes are frighteningly similar prejudices in German society – similar to what he experienced as a Jewish child seventy years ago.

According to the German government, there has been a rise in neo-Nazi crimes in Germany in recent years. Most of them targeted at germany’s growing immigrant population, including Turks and Roma immigrants, derisively called „gypsies“

In one of Germany’s most high profile cases – members of a neo-Nazi subgroup are currently on trial for ten racially motivated murders across the country.

Last year, German chancellor Angela Merkel felt the need to publicly apologize for these racist crimes, calling them her country’s “shame”

And later, Merkel visited the Dachau concentration camp– and again warned of the growing extremism in her country.

For his part, Ernst Grube counters that extremism by visiting classrooms, telling his story, and reminding students that there are echoes of the past all around.

ERNST GRUBE: (translated from German) So, what shapes my life today are my childhood experiences of being ostracized, being mocked for being a Jew, being isolated for being a Jew, being attacked for being a “gypsy”, as people said at the time this is something that must – and I believe can – be conveyed to young people. That is what drives me to be so active today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  This ongoing remembrance of the Holocaust is hardly limited to the few remaining survivors of the war…

Germany has been putting up holocaust memorials, Nazi musuems and historical exhibitions in nearly all its major cities.  The nations’ schools are required to teach in depth lessons on the Nazi era to middle and high schoolers and almost all German students have visited a concentration camp or holocaust museum.

And the commemorations also come in more personal ways

WOLFRAM KASTNER:  I hope that it will never happen again, but if it would start again, it would start not anywhere but here.  In our mind, in our streets, in our city, in our village, in our school.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Wolfram Kastner is an artist in Munich – the city which Adolph Hitler called the capitol of the Nazi movement and one city that has often been criticized for down-playing its role in the rise of the third Reich.

While Munich saw the opening of the Jewish museum in 2007 and is currently building a major center on the history of Nazism, critics argue the city still doesn’t do nearly enough to acknowledge its past.

For example, at one of the city’s major landmarks — the Konigsplatz – there’s barely a sign that it was center stage for many of Hitler’s large Nazi rallies or that this was where Nazi youth had their notorious book burnings.

WOLFRAM KASTNER:  They want the city very clean for tourism.  To invite all people from all over the world to come to Munich to Oktoberfest, and it’s all nice and wonderful and pretty, and it’s so marvelous,  And the black marks, the dark points of the history are cleaned away.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   among his many works, Kastern has defied authorities by burning black circles in the grass at Konigsplatz – a symbolic reminder of those book burnings seventy years ago.

Kastner’s current project has been to tell the stories of particular Jewish families who lived in Munich during the 1930s, and were sent to concentration camps by the nazis. To do so, he paints these suitcases – similar to the ones victims carried to the camps — and places them outside the very buildings where the families lived, along with a plaque telling their stories.

WOLFRAM KASTNER: There lived a family– Meyer.  And– they were killed.  Why?”   But if you see a girl, a face, a story, a history of her, It’s another feeling, and it– history comes near.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   In the end, Germany is doing what few nations have done before…. Not celebrating its greatest accomplishments, but building monuments to its darkest time.   …determined to keep history clearly in sight.

ERNST GRUBE:  I think nowadays, it’s about communicating how it even came to pass that such things could happen. What happened before Auschwitz, what happened before Buchenwald, what happened before Dachau, and after Dachau, after the concentration camp? So it’s about the question: “how could this happen?”, that’s one aspect. And the other is: “yes, ok, but what’s that got to do with me, today?

KURT SCHRIMM (translated from German) According to German law we are committed to prosecuting these cases –  it is true that because of their age they may never reach trial or go to prison, but  it is just and right that we go after these cases.