The Auschwitz Files: Why to Prosecute Lower-Level Officials


Late last week, Polish authorities reopened the investigation into crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. 

The investigation was shelved in the 1980s because it was too difficult to complete under the Communist regime at the time. The Institute of National Remembrance – a research body affiliated with the Polish government – stated last week that the main “purpose of the investigation is a thorough and comprehensive explanation of the circumstances of” the crimes that took place at Auschwitz. But many are skeptical as to the success that this probe will have. According to Slate, “the leading national Nazi hunter,” Efraim Zuroff, is not convinced that the investigation will yield any convictions because most of the victims of Nazis and some Nazis themselves are deceased. However, the ability of this investigation to procure convictions should not be the standard by which it is judged. Instead, the inquiry can be used as a step towards demonstrating to the world that those that perpetrate war crimes will no longer be seen as less criminal than those who order these crimes to be carried out. This should force the International Criminal Court to investigate the lesser-known and lower level participants in its current inquiries into war crimes in such countries as Uganda and the Central African Republic, as well as those in the future.

While many people are discounting this investigation because of its predicted inability to secure convictions, mere exploration into the war crimes of World War II could be enough to demonstrate that committing horrific offenses as a result of following orders is not pardonable. During November 2010, there were “852 ongoing investigations of Nazi war criminals,” though there are certainly others living in secret, according to Slate. From the past decades, these people have essentially been getting away with their crimes, living quiet lives among the families of their victims. All because they aren’t criminals of the same caliber as those prosecuted at Nuremburg or Dachau. They were the lower ranking members of the Gestapo and the SS, following orders and murdering and torturing innocent people. For this reason, lower-ranking soldiers should not be left to live their lives after war: They should be prosecuted just like their superior officers have been. Lower-ranking soldiers are just as guilty as the upper command and should be treated as such.

In the years that have followed the Holocaust, genocides have continued to happen and the guilty, low-ranking soldiers continue to be excused – at least complacently – by society. This can be seen in the cases prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The ICC continues to prosecute only leaders of the wars. The case of Darfur is a perfect example of this. The ICC is focused more on indicting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity than it is on finding and prosecuting the members of Janjaweed who carried out his orders.  The ICC’s lack of interest in the participation of lower-level Janjaweed members is symbolic of the deeper apathy felt toward obedient perpetrators of war crimes.

The re-launched investigation into Auschwitz can be the way to address this problem, even without convictions by the Institute of National Remembrance. Instead, this Polish body can make inquiries, form conclusions, make indictments, and leave obtaining convictions to the German government. In the past year, Germany has been able to convict John Demjanjuk “based on the theory that if he worked there, he was part of the extermination process, even without direct proof of any specific killings,” according to the Huffington Post. This new German precedent, along with the fact that Berlin asks to be allowed to extradite Nazi war criminals, gives new hope for convictions. Hopefully, the investigation by this Polish institution and convictions by the German government together can demonstrate that the obedient soldier who commits mass murder as a result of orders is just as guilty as the commander giving the orders. Establishing such a precedent in Germany will help expand this to an international model of prosecuting both rank-and-file soldiers and their leaders.

Photo Credit: mrbill