Yesterday, an old and sick retired tool-and-die maker was arrested outside his home in a quiet Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. The offense? Mass murder.
Eighty-nine-year-old Johann “Hans” Breyer is being detained in a Philadelphia jail for possible extradition to Germany, on charges that he aided in the killing of 216,000 men, women, and children at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous German concentration camp in occupied Poland from 1940 to 1945.
After almost seventy years, why is Germany suddenly showing an acute interest in hunting down Nazi war criminals? Has the country not repented sufficiently for its war crimes? Is the Federal Republic of Germany not now the leading economy in the Western world? Must the sins of the fathers be eternally visited on the children?
We need to understand that Germany’s interest is anything but sudden. To gain some true perspective on the issue, it’s helpful to look back at what still stands as the most publicly prosecuted Nazi case in history — that of Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was captured in 1960, in a combined effort by Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet, and spirited to that country to stand trial. Israel put him to death by hanging in 1962.
In the heady 60s, everyone had an opinion about what should be done about Eichmann. Historians, philosophers, even entire nations weighed in on what his fate should be. In 1963, Hanna Arendt wrote the now classic Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a long article for the New Yorker which she eventually extended into a book. Those words in the book’s title — the banality of evil — for years served as the summary philosophical catchphrase for what Nazis like Eichmann were all about: sniveling bureaucrats alienated from the larger issues of good and evil, little men who “were just following orders.”
The number of companies who collaborated with the Nazis is legion — Hugo Boss, Siemens, Bayer, Volkswagen.
In the 1961 movie Judgment at Nuremberg, Maximilian Schell, portraying Nazi defense counsel Hans Rolfe, delivers a magnificent monologue that attempts to deflect German guilt for what happened to the Jews by unloading shared responsibility on the Allied powers.
But persuasive media portrayals and philosophical essays never quite got Germany off the hook for sanctioning murder. As their economy improved and the country was brought back into civilization, Germans knew they’d have to deal with their past.
In one way or another, Germany has been trying to come to terms with the issue from the start. In a 2011 retrospective consideration of the Eichmann trial, the German newspaper Der Spiegel tells how, of all people, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was afraid that the Eichmann trial would expose the past sins of Nazis from Bonn. So he paid a journalist to try and influence the trial. The defense minister of Germany also threatened Israel at the time that if other Nazi names became public during the trial, important German-Israel arms deals would “fall apart.”
The Eichmann trial served to put Germany on notice. What the world has gotten since then has been selected war criminals — a Klaus Barbie here, an Ivan Demanjuk there. But Nazi participation seeps deep into German roots. The number of companies who collaborated with the Nazis is legion — Hugo Boss, Siemens, Bayer, Volkswagen.
What Germany is now attempting to do with criminals like Breyer is to go after low-hanging fruit, to prosecute the vulnerable. It’s striving to promote an image as aggressive Nazi hunters, to take charge of its own history. So far the Germans have solicited the blessing of the group that traditionally has been the most aggressive of all Nazi hunters, the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Germany deserves credit for doing this — for extending and expanding their efforts and, in a sense, making a final attempt to maximize the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators."
In a world where many high school students don’t know who Hitler was, one where Nazis are aging and history is starting to forget, Germany seems to be telling the world: “let us pick and choose who should be prosecuted. Accept us as the economic leader of the world, and we will send you select criminals and perpetrators.”
We would do better to abide by a much less convenient and more sage lesson from author and Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”