My grandmother’s Nazi killer evaded justice. Modern war criminals must not

As the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials approaches, Ilse Cohn’s grandson calls for international law to ensure those committing atrocities today face retribution

The man who ordered the murder of my grandmother never stood trial for the crime. Nor did he stand trial for any of the other 137,000 murders he ordered during five short months in 1941.

I know who he was. His name was Karl Jäger, and he was the commander of a Nazi execution squad in Lithuania, where my 44-year-old grandmother had been deported from her home town in Germany. He is just one of several hundred thousand men and women who were never brought to justice for the part they played in the Nazi holocaust. It’s estimated that up to a million people were directly or indirectly involved in holocaust atrocities, yet only a tiny fraction – perhaps no more than 1% – were ever prosecuted.

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal at which 24 of the most senior Nazi leaders stood trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was the first such trial in history, described at the time as “a shining light for justice”.

A dozen other trials followed – of bankers, lawyers, doctors and others – but according to Mary Fulbrook, professor of German history at University College London, once the Nuremberg process was over, the West Germans prosecuted only 6,000 people for their part in Nazi crimes, of whom some 4,000 were convicted.

Most holocaust perpetrators, such as Jäger, a music-loving SS colonel who ordered the murder of my grandmother and so many others, simply melted back into their community. Jäger, for example, led a quiet, inconspicuous life as a farmer in the German town of Waldkirch, not far from the borders with France and Switzerland, until he was finally arrested in 1959. He hanged himself in his prison cell with a length of electric cable before he could be brought to trial.

So why was Nuremberg, and the handful of other war crimes trials that followed, the exception rather than the rule?

First, because by 1945, large parts of Germany were a smouldering ruin. Millions of people were homeless, so the emphasis was primarily on reconstruction. And who was available to take charge in the “new Germany” if not the very same officials (supposedly de-Nazified) who had served under the Nazis?

Second, because with the start of the cold war and fears of Soviet domination in Europe, both the US and Britain believed that confronting the Soviet threat was more important than hunting down thousands of Nazis. Justice would have to take a back seat.

None of which excuses why, even today, so few perpetrators of the most egregious crimes against humanity are pursued and convicted. It’s true that Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić are both serving long prison sentences for their role in the atrocities of the war in Bosnia. The former Liberian president Charles Taylor is incarcerated after being convicted of what the judge at his trial in The Hague called ‘some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history’, and the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, died of Covid-19 last month while serving a life sentence for human rights abuses.

But, like Nuremberg, they are the exceptions. Who has stood trial, or will stand trial, for the appalling abuses committed against the Uyghurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Yazidi in Iraq, or the people of Tigray in Ethiopia? How many mass murderers are walking free in Rwanda, or Syria?

The anniversary of the Nuremberg verdicts offers an opportunity to revisit the debate over war crimes prosecutions, both past and future. It also marks the October release of a major new documentary film called Getting Away With Murder(s) which shines a spotlight on some of the thousands of unpunished Nazi war criminals who escaped after 1945 and lived the rest of their lives undisturbed, some of them in Britain.

Ilse Cohn , Robin Lustig’s grandmother, who was killed by the Nazis in 1941.
Ilse Cohn, Robin Lustig’s grandmother, who was killed by the Nazis in 1941. Photograph: Robin Lustig

(Full disclosure: after the film’s director, David Wilkinson, read an article I wrote in the Observer three years ago, he invited me to appear in the film, visiting the site of my grandmother’s death.)

Seventy-five years after Nuremberg, at a time when war crimes are still being committed with shameful alacrity, it is more important than ever to re-emphasise the need to collect evidence when such crimes are committed, and to reaffirm the principle that they should never go unpunished.

History matters. We can learn from past mistakes, which is why in Germany, under the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction”, a Syrian doctor is now on trial charged with crimes against humanity for torturing people in military hospitals. In the Netherlands, another Syrian was sentenced last July to 20 years in prison, accused of being a member of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate. In Sweden, a former Iranian deputy public prosecutor is currently on trial over the mass execution and torture of prisoners in the 1980s.

It is sometimes argued that the need for justice must take second place to the need for peace and reconciliation. In South Africa and Northern Ireland countless crimes have gone unpunished in the name of peace-making. It is not always an argument without merit.

But now fast forward a few years. Imagine that another international war crimes tribunal is under way in The Hague. In the dock, accused of a long list of human rights abuses, are the leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Is it unlikely? Perhaps. But it is not impossible – if evidence is collected and political will exerted. In 1995, after the Srebrenica massacre, when Bosnian Serb forces slaughtered an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys, who would have imagined that one day those responsible for the atrocity would be prosecuted and convicted for their actions? Yet today, both Karadžić and Mladić are behind bars. (The former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević was also prosecuted in The Hague but died before the end of his trial.)

It can be done. There should be no excuse for allowing more war criminals to get away with murder.

Getting Away with Murder(s) opens in selected cinemas on 1 October


Robin Lustig

The GuardianTramp

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