May you Live Long and be Prosecuted

At 100, Herbert Wahler has outlived other Germans listed as members of the genocidal Einsatzgruppe C. His age should not shield him from accountability.

(Courtesy of Times of Israel, where article first appeared)

By Efraim Zuroff

This past Friday, Herbert Wahler celebrated his 100th birthday. Quite an achievement for a German, who spent a significant part of World War II serving on the Eastern front in the Ukraine. Yet upon closer examination of Wahler’s service record, it’s not that surprising, since, for a significant part of the conflict, Wahler was not dodging bullets shot at him by Red Army soldiers, but rather contributing to the efforts of Einsatzgruppe C to mass murder innocent Jews and other “enemies of the Reich.”

“No, No, No”. Footage captures the chilling moment when aging suspected Nazi death squad guard Herbert Wahler animatedly denies the claims he was present at a mass execution during WWII in the Ukraine.

Einsatzgruppe C was one of the four special killing squads, labeled A, B, C, and D, the Nazis sent in June 1941, along with the Wehrmacht troops invading the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, to begin the mass murder of Jews, even before the formal decree of the “Final Solution” was officially adopted at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. They spread out over the entire territory, with A responsible for the former Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; B in charge in Belarus; C active in central Ukraine and D in southern Ukraine. In the course of 1941-1943, these units, which numbered approximately 3,000 men, with assistance from members of the Wehrmacht, German police units, and local collaborators, were responsible for the mass murder by shooting of approximately 2 million persons, among them 1.3 million Jews.

Mass Murder Unearthed. A 1944 file photo of part of the Babi Yar ravine at the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine where the advancing Red Army unearthed the bodies of 14,000 civilians killed by fleeing Nazis, 1944. Einsatzgruppe C was responsible for one of the most notorious massacres, the shooting of nearly 34,000 at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the Ukrainian city of Kiev, on Sept. 29-30, 1941. (AP Photo, file)

Wahler served initially in a Waffen-S.S. unit, which in late July 1941 was assigned to Einsatzgruppen C. The unit went from place to place murdering tens of thousands of innocent civilians, most of whom were Jewish, and by the end of October 1941 had killed an estimated 78,000 people, and carried out the largest mass murder in the history of the Holocaust, the September 29-30 massacre of 33,771 Jews in Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev.

Walk of Death. Jews on their way out of the city of Kiev to the infamous execution site of Babi Yar outside of Kiev, pass corpses in the street. (Photo: Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives)

Despite the extremely important role played by the Einsatzgruppen in the Holocaust, relatively few of those who carried out the murders were brought to justice. The Americans conducted a trial of 24 of the senior leaders of the units, and two-thirds of the defendants were sentenced to death (14) or life imprisonment (2), but only four men were executed. All the others who were convicted had their sentences reduced. (Four others were tried and executed by other countries.) Only about 100 men were subsequently indicted in West Germany, a few were convicted and given mild sentences, and none were executed.

Evil under the Sun. SS guards are seen here having fun at Sobibor not far from the gas chambers where the incoming Jews were gassed soon after arrival.  Sobibor was an extermination camp rather than a concentration camp  and existed for the sole purpose of murdering Jews.

Given those circumstances, I was expecting that in the wake of the dramatic change a decade ago in German prosecution policy vis-à-vis Nazi war criminals, which made it possible to convict those who served in death camps and/or camps with gas chambers or gas vans, or camps with a high mortality rate, based on service alone (as opposed to the previous requirement of proving a specific crime against a specific victim), it would now be possible to convict people who served in the Einsatzgruppen. In fact, shortly after the Demjanjuk verdict [John Demjanjuk was convicted as an accessory  to the murder of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor], I met in 2011 with the directors of the Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes (the federal German agency which initiates Nazi war crimes investigations) to discuss the issue, and they confirmed that indeed they had adopted that policy.

Escaped Punishment. Finally some justice – if only a little and too late and even then, not quite! John Demjanjuk, who served as guard at Sobibor, leaves court on 12 May 2011 after being sentenced for involvement in mass murder. However, he appealed, and died at a home for the elderly in  Germany on 17 March 2012, aged 91. As a consequence of his appeal not having been heard, Demjanjuk is still presumed innocent under German law.

That did not happen, however, so three years later, in the fall of 2014, I checked the Wiesenthal Center archives for all the names of people who served in the Einsatzgruppen, for whom we had a date of birth. We had a total of 1,293 names (out of about 2,950) of those who served in A, B, C, or D, of which we had dates of birth for 1,069. Of those, 80 people, 76 men and four women, were born in 1920 or later. On September 1, 2014, I sent that list, which included Herbert Wahler’s name, to the German Justice Minister, Heiko Maas; and the Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maiziere. It took the German authorities 17 months to check the list, which they informed me included three people alive in Germany, all of whom had served in Einsatzgruppe C.

Last Jew Executed. A picture from an Einsatzgruppen soldier’s personal album, labeled on the back as “Last Jew of Vinnitsa”. It shows a member of Einsatzgruppe C just about to shoot a Jewish man kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, in 1941. All 28,000 Jews from Vinnitsa and its surrounding areas were massacred at the time.

I received the news with a mixture of joy and trepidation. Joy that at least three were alive, trepidation that they might not live long enough to be prosecuted – which is why I sometimes find myself praying for the good health of Nazis who might be prosecuted). In the meantime, my fears turned out to be well-founded and Kurt Gosdek and Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Hoffmeister have already died without being brought to justice. Although Wahler has admitted in media interviews that he was in Kiev during the massacre, the prosecutor in Kassel closed his case, probably because Wahler claims that he was a medic, leaving unanswered the question of who it was he was assisting, the perpetrators or the victims.

Killing outside Kiev. A German Einsatzgruppen soldier talks to two unidentified women at the top of the Babi Yar ravine, where more than 33,000 people, mostly Jews, were massacred on September 29 and 30, 1941.

So last Friday, a demonstration was held in front of Wahler’s house in Meslungen by members of the Dokumentartheaters Berlin and the AK Angreifbare Traditionspflege, and members of the Liberal Jewish community in nearby Felsberg to demand that justice be served. My message to them, which was read at the demonstration, was simple:

The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the murderers and their accomplices. And old age should not afford protection for merciless killers.”

Killer of Civilians. Herbert Wahler pictured here in his army uniform served initially in a Waffen-S.S. unit, which in late July 1941 was assigned to Einsatzgruppen C, one of the four special killing squads. The Einsatzgruppen were the Nazis’ opening salvo in the Holocaust – SS units who followed behind the regular army as it pushed into the Soviet Union in 1941, murdering tens of thousands of innocent civilians, most of whom were Jewish.

Herbert Wahler may think that “What has been, has been, it’s over,” as he told the ARD journalists from Kontraste, but as long as any of the men and women from the Einsatzgruppen, death’s head units, and anyone who served in the concentration camps where so many innocent human beings were murdered are alive, they cannot be allowed to live their lives in peace and tranquility. That is a privilege they denied their victims.

They must be held accountable!

Even if they were not officers or did not have high ranks. In death squads and death camps, there is no such thing as “a small cog”. It’s the “small cogs”, who ensured the implementation of the “Final Solution”, and they must be held accountable.”

About the writer:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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