LUDWIGSBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Germany’s chief Nazi prosecutor is now more likely to be consoling the grandchild of a war criminal than chasing Adolf Hitler’s murderous henchmen.
More than 60 years after World War Two ended, Nazi hunters are running out of targets and increasingly becoming historians who shine a harsh light on dark family secrets.
“It’s hard to keep prosecutors here,” said Kurt Schrimm, who leads Germany’s department for prosecuting Nazi war crimes.
“I tell them when they start that the prospects of prosecution are slim. The suspects are getting older. It’s more about finding out and explaining what happened.”
For many Germans, the search for Nazis in their family ends in the small western town of Ludwigsburg.
Hundreds of thousands of index cards fill the cellar of the former prison. Each card carries a name and often a list of war-crime prosecutions. A librarian leafs through the indexes, looking for names put forward by callers researching family members they may have never known.
For Schrimm, the face of one such bewildered teenager is as vivid a memory as that of her grandfather, Josef Schwammberger -- the “most brutal Nazi” he ever put behind bars.
The Austrian’s purges in a Polish ghetto included shooting 40 children in an orphanage and offering a false amnesty to Jews living underground only to order them stripped and executed.
After paying 500,000 Deutsch Marks to an informant, Schrimm traced Schwammberger to Argentina which extradited him in 1987.
In his initial interviews, Schwammberger appeared to be a gentle, grandfatherly figure. He told Schrimm he had turned to “the Pope” for help in escaping the advancing allied forces.
Over the course of his trial, he emerged as a sadist who once encouraged his dog to maul a man to death.
During the hearings, Schrimm received a visit from a 17-year-old girl: “His granddaughter had read it in the newspapers and wanted to know first hand if it was true,” Schrimm recalls. “She was totally shaken.”
Correcting history has also become an important part of Eli Rosenbaum’s work.
Head of the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, Rosenbaum has unmasked Nazis who settled inconspicuously into suburban America as well as knocking prominent citizens off their pedestals.
When Rosenbaum discovered Arthur Rudolph around 1980, the architect of the Saturn V rocket that put man on the moon was one of America’s most celebrated adopted sons.
But during the war, Rudolph had managed a “hell-like” underground factory in Germany where slave workers built the V2 rocket, Rosenbaum says. Prisoners were tortured, killed and, on one occasion, forced to watch a mass hanging of inmates.
After the war, Rudolph and others were hired by the U.S. military and brought to their new home under a secret programme called Project Paperclip, formerly known as Operation Overcast.
In German archives, Rosenbaum discovered a report signed by Rudolph describing a visit to an aircraft factory using forced labor. ”He writes that this is great from the security perspective and recommends they use camp inmates to build the
Disgraced, Rudolph surrendered his U.S. citizenship and returned to Germany.
”I remember he died on New Year’s day,“ says Rosenbaum. ”He spent many years trying to rehabilitate his name.
“We had rewritten history. Very few people knew about that aspect of the German V2 programme.”
“At the air and space museum (in Washington), they have a V2 missile. I remember going to see it when I was investigating Rudolph and there was nothing that indicated how this thing was made. After the case, they changed the display.”
Bringing war criminals to justice is getting ever tougher but Schrimm rebuts criticism from Nazi-hunting institution the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that convictions are too low.
”The results are bad and they are going to get worse,“ he says. ”They will have more cause for disappointment next year.
“But that is no reflection of our competence or willingness. I can’t pull witnesses out of a hat.”
Setting history straight, however, offers some compensation. Schrimm recalls a meeting with a frail Jewish woman he visited in New York who had lost her family to Schwammberger’s executioners.
”‘I’ve told the story to my children and my grandchildren,’ she said. ‘I’ve waited 45 years for someone from Germany to express an interest in hearing it.
“Now that you have come, I can die in peace.”’
Editing by Robert Woodward