Of Nazis and Guillotines

Santa Monica Daily Press

Of Nazis and guillotines

By Paul Morantz on May 12, 2015 in Your Column Here

As a Jew born the year World War II ended, the horror of Nazi atrocities has been an ever-present force in my life. I grew up hearing the grotesque tales of life and death in the concentration camps. I’ve seen most of the movies and documentaries on the subject and visited Dachau when I was 25, leaving a depressed soul.

Not long ago, my son returned from an emotional tour of the museum in Nuremberg dedicated to the post-war trials of Nazi leaders. Like most Jews, I cheered when Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler’s so-called “Final Solution,” was rooted from his hiding place and returned to Israel in 1961, where he was tried and subsequently executed. I reveled in the exploits of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who relentlessly tracked down so many Nazi fugitives.

But recently I read “The Race Against Time to Convict Surviving Nazis” in the April 24 edition of Newsweek. Rather than reflecting a civilized society’s desire to bring tyrants to justice, the prosecutions described seem to me more like the random blood lust of Al Queda or ISIS or the guillotine days of the French revolution.

As a lawyer who has spent much of his career pursuing justice for the victims of destructive cults, I know how easy it is to cross that line from justice to revenge. But I believe in the rule of law and what I read in article convinced me that this prosecutorial crusade has little to do with that.

Four years ago, in Munich, convicted former Nazi guard John Demjanjuk was tried and sentenced to five years in prison (he died while the verdict was being appealed).While the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of participating in the mass murder of Jews, it was apparent that he didn’t try to stop it. He was thus part of the Nazi “killing machine” and an accessory to murder, the court explained.

This admittedly “lower bar” for conviction opened the floodgates for a host of cases like Oska Groning, 93, who witnessed a concentration camp guard brutally murder a baby. Mr. Groning’s primary job was counting the money confiscated from inmates but is now charged with failing to stop the killing.

Mr. Groning professes, the article states, that he has suffered from recurring nightmares about the baby’s murder ever since, but neither that nor his advanced age has earned him any sympathy in the German courts.

Apparently, after seven decades, the rapidly dwindling supply of actual Nazi villains — policy makers, leaders and brutal psychopaths — isn’t sufficient to satiate the public’s lust for revenge.

I wonder if any of these modern-day moralists would have had the courage to stand up and insist that all the armed butchers surrounding them cease their murderous ways? Could someone simply announce that they no longer wanted to serve as a guard and walk away? We all know the answer to that.

If Germany and Newsweek are correct, then we must immediately arrest every soldier who was at M_ Lai, whether or not they actually participated in the massacre. Maybe we should add all the pilots and foot soldiers who invaded Iraq. And everyone connected to any drones that went off target.

The leaders of the Nazi movement, who crafted this murderous policy, certainly must be punished as do the butchers who carried out these heinous crimes. But do we really want to punish young men who were simply trying to survive in a violent and insane regime? Would it not, after so much time passage, be wiser to pursue just the planners?

The Nazi Party succeeded in brainwashing a large portion of the German populace. And scientific studies have shown that a surprisingly large percentage of any population is willing to commit shocking tortious acts if convinced by an imposing authority figure that they are for the betterment of mankind. Instead of perp-walking them into court in a charade of justice, perhaps we should get their stories and learn from them before they pass on.

The Holocaust is an undeniable tragedy the lessons of which should never be forgotten. As anyone in Rwanda, Bosnia and the Middle East can tell you, the sickness they detail hasn’t disappeared.

Still, there are those who want to cast stones at nonagenarians for the inability of their teenage selves to reverse the tragic direction of an entire nation gone mad. This smacks of denial and ignores the lessons learned from studies of the notorious cults of the 20th century, i.e., that good people, under a perfect storm of circumstances, could be induced to do terrible things.

To all those who seek to fill jail cells with old men, I suggest you first consider how much better you would have done if forced to march a mile in their jackboots.

Paul Morantz, Esq., is the author of “Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults” and “From Miracle to Madness: The True Story of Charles Dederich and Synanon.”