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The Prosecution of War Criminals

The Moscow Declaration of October 30, 1943, “Concerning Responsibility of Hitlerites for Committed Atrocities” and the London Agreement of August 8, 1945, “Concerning Prosecution and Punishment of Major War Criminals of European Axis” established the basis for the Allies to prosecute war criminals. The Allies subsequently enacted a law to codify what constituted war crimes and what their punishments should be.

In her book, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, Mary Fulbrook, a professor of Germany History at University College London, writes that there were more than 200,000 perpetrators of Nazi-era crimes. Between 1946 and 2005, 140,000 individuals were tried and 6,656 ended in convictions. With the exception of the Nuremberg trials of high-ranking Nazis, most of the trials received little attention.

Fulbrook said that because the Allied trials were seen as “victor’s justice,” they were “vilified and not taken seriously.” In addition, she noted that some of the people given “severe sentences in the 1940s were released with much lighter sentences in the 1950s.

Why weren’t more of the perpetrators brought to justice?

“From today’s perspective, it's easy to say you could have done things differently in the 1950s,” said Jens Rommel, lead prosecutor at Germany's Federal Authority for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes. “It may not have been possible to carry out the prosecution of tens of thousands of suspects as accessories to war crimes.”

Another reason, Rommel said, is that many of the people involved in the justice system in postwar Germany may have had roles in the Third Reich and were therefore disinclined to prosecute their fellow Germans.

In addition, many former Nazis were recruited by the West for their scientific expertise or their value as informers against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Approximately 1,600 of these scientists were brought to the United States through Operation Paperclip.

Source: Atika Shubert and Nadine Schmidt,” Most Nazis escaped justice. Now Germany is racing to convict those who got away, CNN, (December 15, 2018).