The last Nazi hunters
The long read: Since 1958, a small department of Germanys government has sought to bring members of the Third Reich to trial. A handful of prosecutors are still tracking down Nazis, but the worlds biggest cold-case investigation will soon be shut down
The Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes is an austere, pale-yellow prison building nestled into the 18th-century city wall of Ludwigsburg in southwestern Germany. Once used by the Nazis to detain political prisoners, the building announces its contemporary tenants obliquely, with a small, silver sign. Entering the Central Office still feels like entering a jail; to gain access, one must pass through a white metal gate and then through a second secure doorway.
Since it was created by the West German government in 1958, the Central Offices mission has been to deliver Nazis to justice. Every year, its six investigative departments, each of which consists of a single prosecutor, scour the globe looking for members of the Third Reich. Chief prosecutor Jens Rommel, who heads the operation, is a sturdy, jovial 44-year-old with frameless glasses and a triangular goatee. The German press calls him a Nazi hunter, but Rommel doesnt like the term. A hunter is looking for a trophy, he told me. He has a rifle in his hand. Im a prosecutor looking for murderers and I have criminal code in my hand.
Rommel and his staff visit the sites of former concentration camps across Germany and eastern Europe to sift through records and walk the grounds to determine what defendants might have witnessed from their posts. Over the past decade, the office, which has an annual budget of 1.2m, has also conducted more than 20 trips to archives in South America. The investigators spend most days under an avalanche of bureaucratic documents, checking and cross-checking names on German, Russian, British, French and Polish lists everything from SS papers documenting quotidian affairs such as the issuing of new uniforms and marriage requests, to Allied inventories of prisoners of war. Their goal is to find the last living Nazis who have yet to be indicted and might still be able to stand trial.
When I visited Ludwigsburg in May, Rommel was preparing for a trip to Moscow, where he would search an archive for names of perpetrators from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which the Nazis operated near Berlin from 1936 to 1945. Another Central Office prosecutor, Manuela Zeller, was sorting through records from Auschwitz and Ravensbrck, looking for anyone whose name hadnt been checked by her predecessors. Her colleague Michael Otte was doing the same for the Buchenwald and Stutthof concentration camps. Another colleague was about to travel to Mauthausen, in Austria, where at least 95,000 people were murdered during the war.
This is a giant cold-case operation, Devin Pendas, a historian of Nazi prosecutions at Boston College, said of the Central Office. Its looking at crimes that happened a long time ago, with only the sketchiest information about who the perpetrators might be. Rommel, a former criminal prosecutor, approaches the work the same way he used to investigate homicide cases, treating the archives at his disposal as live crime scenes. There are crimes behind these words, but theres no blood here, he said.
Central Office prosecutors unearth the names of about 30 living perpetrators per year. Their cases are then handed over to regional prosecutors, who usually spend another year conducting follow-up investigations and deciding whether to take the individuals to court. Since the start of the 21st century, this work has led to six prosecutions, but in the media, every case has been called the last Nazi trial, as if writers, editors and readers all hope the label will finally prove to be true.
Today, the youngest suspects are 90 years old, and most were low-level Nazi functionaries: guards, cooks, medics, telephone operators and the like. The defendants tend to die during the lengthy judicial process, so the odds of conviction are miniscule. Partly as a result, few Germans know the Central Office exists, and many of those who do tend to view it with ambivalence. It is hard for people to see what exactly the point is of putting a 90-year-old in jail, Pendas said. Others view the office with reverence, awed by what it has managed to achieve despite considerable odds.
Throughout its history, the condition of the Central Office has been one important measure of Germanys evolving relationship to its Nazi past. After its founding in 1958, it enjoyed 10 years of robust activity before receding from public view, amid widespread opposition to further investigations of German war crimes. Now, every day that passes separating the present from the atrocities in question further imperils the Central Offices cause.