Last chance to catch the Nazis

Efraim Zuroff argues age and frailty of the Holocaust's perpetrators must not weaken our resolve to

The news that Austria is re-opening the case of Erna Wallisch, a female guard at the Majdanek death camp, currently residing in Vienna, was accompanied in many media outlets by a photograph of an elderly, rather disoriented housewife - who looked as if she had been awaken from a deep sleep.

Indeed it appeared on the surface quite difficult to connect the subject of the photograph to the content of the news story. And that in a microcosm, is a significant element of the problems we face in our efforts to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, more than six decades after they committed their crimes.

Due to the advanced age of the suspects, there is more than a little scepticism as to the value of such prosecutions.

In that context, it is important to reiterate the four basic principles which guide us in our efforts to hold Holocaust perpetrators accountable for their crimes – and which have motivated the launch of our 'Operation: Last Chance' project, which seeks to maximize prosecution by offering financial rewards for information which helps facilitate the conviction and punishment of Nazi war criminals.

The first principle is that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators. If someone committed a crime in 1941 or 1942 and is not caught, he or she is just as guilty today as they were six decades ago.

The second principle is that murderers do not deserve a prize for longevity. The fact that a killer reached an elderly age should not afford them any special consideration.

The third principle is that if we were to institute a chronological limit on prosecution of Nazi war criminals, it would mean on a practical level that we were allowing people to get away with genocide since the basic implication of such a limit would be that if a killer was rich enough, smart enough or lucky enough to elude justice until he or she reached the age limit - they would escape punishment. To create such a situation would obviously be unthinkable from a moral and judicial standpoint.

The last principle relates to the victims. One of the points always stressed by the late Simon Wiesenthal was that the post-Holocaust generation has an obligation to the victims to make every effort to hold their murderers accountable. On a more personal level, if someone had murdered your grandmother and the killer was only found forty or fifty years later, the fact that many years had passed since the crime would not in any way diminish your natural desire that the murderer of your grandmother be punished for that terrible crime. And in that respect we must remember that every one of the Nazis’ victims was someone’s grandmother or grandfather, father or mother, son or daughter. Hence every one of those victims deserves that an effort be made to find their murderers and hold them accountable.

The moral arguments listed above are complemented by several statistics which underscore the validity of the contemporary efforts to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Thus during that period from April 1 2006 until March 31 2007, a total of 21 individuals who either participated in Nazi war crimes during World War II or actively collaborated with Nazi forces were convicted, and since January 1 2001, 69 such convictions have been obtained. As of April 1, 2007, there were at least 1019 ongoing investigations in fourteen different countries of individuals suspected of Nazi war crimes.

These figures reflect two important phenomena – the increased sensitivity of certain governments to the significance of Holocaust crimes and the obvious necessity of trying to achieve justice while it is still possible. Having said that, it would be naïve to attribute all the investigations currently underway solely to these factors since it is clear that numerous governments lack the requisite political will to prosecute the criminals of World War II and often open investigations primarily to deflect possible public criticism and delay unpopular prosecutions.

In this context, it is important to note that contrary to common popular perception, the biggest obstacle to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the 21st century is not finding them or the evidence against them - but rather combating the lack of political will in numerous countries which refuse to take the necessary legal measures to hold Holocaust criminals accountable. For example, two out of the four strongest cases developed in the framework of 'Operation: Last Chance' are currently bogged down in extradition problems, which have so far prevented the prosecution of Croatian police chief Milivoj Ašner and Hungarian officer Charles Zentai, both of whom are wanted in the countries in which they committed their crimes (Croatia and Hungary respectively).

An important component of our efforts in the Wallisch case will be to 'train' people to look at her and see the Majdanek guard who took people to be gassed as opposed to the elderly Vienna housewife. That may not be easy, but it is part of our obligation to her victims and an important part of the fight for justice.

You can find out more about Operation Last Chance at the project's website.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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