Thomas Walther is likely Germany’s last Nazi hunter. Now 73, he spent decades as a prosecutor and judge in Germany. Instead of retiring in 2006, Walther took a job at the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg, Germany. He is widely credited with changing German legal thinking in the pursuit of Nazi-era war criminals by persuading courts of the so-called “cog-in- the-wheel” principle, which argues that anyone who worked at a concentration camp bears responsibility for aiding and abetting mass murder. Thanks to Walther, it is no longer necessary to prove specific or direct acts of killing.
The tactic proved successful in the convictions of Oskar Gröning, the so-called “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” who was found guilty in 2015 of aiding and abetting the murder of at least 300,000 Hungarian Jews and sentenced to four years in jail; and of Reinhold Hanning, a former Auschwitz guard who was found guilty last year of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people. In both cases, Walther represented “co-plaintiffs” – former camp inmates who testified how their experiences affected their lives, including several Canadians.
The CJN interviewed Walther on his recent stop in Toronto.
Why did it so long for legal thinking to change in Germany when it came to prosecuting Nazi-era war criminals?
This process began with the so-called Frankfurt trials of 1963 to 1965 [when 22 defendants were charged under German criminal law for their roles at Auschwitz]. It was the first big Auschwitz trial. There were more than 300 witnesses and a lot of experts. But it always had to be proved that the defendants were involved in a direct way with the killing process. The prosecutors didn’t want that. They wanted to show that Auschwitz and the killing of Jews was one big crime. And if you are involved in doing your work as a clerk in the office or giving orders, then you were involved in the whole process of killing. The prosecutors wanted these accused to be sentenced for one big crime.
But the court ruled in a completely contrary way. They made small slices of every day, every hour. You had to prove that the second-in-command was involved in the killing of Jews, for example, from Debrecen, Hungary, arriving on July 1. It was not possible! There was no possibility to prove that the second-in-command was on the ramp that day and that he gave direct orders on the first of July.
So the cog-in-the-wheel principle was raised as far as back as the mid-1960s. Other suspects were far from the real killing process, and it could not be proved they were on the ramp on a certain day. So, officials decided not to make them stand trial in anywhere in Germany.
That changed in the Demjanjuk case [when John Demjanjuk, whose conviction by an Israeli court for war crimes was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court, was extradited to Germany and found guilty of aiding and abetting murder]. Officials realized that prosecuting Holocaust crimes had to be done the same way as murder not related to the Holocaust, but in a terrorist attack.
For example, in the 9/11 attacks, some of the pilots came from Germany. There were persons who assisted them from Germany. One of them paid the rent on the flat of one of the pilots, Mohamed Atta.
And were those Germans prosecuted under the cog-in-the-wheel law?
They were, in 2006. Years before Demjanjuk. So there was never a question to prosecute such accused in other fields.
Why did it take so long for you to come forward?
It took so long because nobody had the idea to change it. Nobody realized the big, big fault.
I must confess that during my time as a judge and prosecutor, I didn’t think this way about Holocaust-era crimes. It was not on my agenda. When I retired, I researched which criminals from the Holocaust may be put on trial. I was told it was not possible to put anyone on trial because we have to prove they were involved with their own hands in the killing process and we have no witnesses.
When I started to speak about this, my colleagues laughed and said, “what a stupid idea.” But then they said, “If you are right, then you have done the wrong things for a long time.” After it was successful, the office said, “This is something very new.” A new idea? Not at all. It’s an old idea.
Have you been criticized in Germany for pursuing this?
I’m only criticized by officials for saying this has been a big fault for decades. We jurists, we prosecutors, we judges, we forgot the real law. What is the reason for forgetting? That is a question of psychology.
It is possible that German courts were reluctant to use the principle when it came to Nazi-era crimes because they believed it would extend to many people who were civilians, not just former soldiers?
It is possible, but I cannot prove it.
Does it upset you when older people say they did not know what was happening to Jews during the Holocaust?
I think everybody knew what happened after a few days or even a few hours. Not to know when deaths in thousands of cases happened just beside you – everybody knew it. Gröning said in court that everybody knew. There was no possibility not to know.
Are you confident of more trials in the future?
I cannot say anything about other trials. When it’s all over, there will be a little book I want to write. This will be a certain final point for myself. n
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity