Justice is Justice, Whatever Your Age

Recently, it was announced that a former Auschwitz guard has been arrested in America, and is due to be extradited back to Germany for trial. 89-year-old Johann Breyer has been charged with assisting with around 200,000 deaths, although he claims to have been stationed 'outside' the camp and had no part in the killings.

His lawyer, however, is claiming that Mr Breyer is 'too frail' to be held under arrest whilst awaiting extradition hearings. This is by no means the only case in which a former Nazi member or collaborator has had excuses made on their behalf regarding their elderly age, or frail physical or mental health. The lawyers of the late John Demjanjuk protested repeatedly before his retrial in Germany in 2009 - nevertheless, however, he was found fit to stand trial and arrived at the court in a wheelchair, charged with Nazi war crimes at the former extermination camp near Sobibór. He was found guilty and died in prison three years later.

There are those who would agree with these perpetrators' defence councils; how can the Western world bring potentially fragile, elderly men into a public courtroom and require them to recount their part in a genocide that took place 70 years ago? Is it morally ethical to bring these people to justice at such a late stage in their life? To me, the answer is simple: Yes. And there is one equally simple answer I would give in explanation.

Whether or not these former Nazi concentration camp guards were at the heart or the periphery of the extermination process, each had certain knowledge of the 'special treatment' that befell the Jewish population of Europe. The vast majority expressed no protest and certainly didn't try and stop the killing process; in that respect, therefore, each had a hand in the extermination of the Jews and other groups.
Furthermore, if we're talking about issues of age and fragility - did the Nazis show any compassion towards the elderly population that were shoved into box cars and cattle trucks and sent to places like Auschwitz? Did they help them down from these trucks upon arrival - that is, if they hadn't died of suffocation or starvation on the way - and make sure that they were sent to a quarantine or place of respite? Absolutely not. Anyone who was deemed unfit for work was separated from their loved ones, asked to undress and sent into a room to die from poisonous gas. The mental or physical state of these people wasn't given a second thought, and the more disabled and weak they were, the less chance they had of being alive for more than an hour upon arrival at an extermination camp such as Auschwitz.

Efraim Zuroff, Chief Nazi Hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, has welcomed the latest arrest

So why are some people so determined to ensure we are taking the best care of men who had a hand in such awful crimes? We have human rights, of course, and our general conduct of moral values means that these men will not be mistreated. But anyone who would try and convince me that these men should be left alone would find their opinion falling on deaf ears. It has taken a long time to catch some of the people who played a part in the Holocaust, but justice served late is better than justice never served. It also sends out the message that you do not have to be an official or well-known face to be investigated and arrested - if you are a cog in the machine of genocide or crimes against humanity, efforts will be taken to make sure you are caught and punished for your actions.

Of course, there may never be a proper form of 'justice' to serve on behalf of the millions who were killed, but present-day Germany has an excellent justice system and is determined to come to terms with its dark past. To me, however, the only appropriate form of justice would be for these men to have not slept properly for the last 70 years, seeing the faces of the victims of their beloved regime in front of their eyes every time they close their eyes.