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Elderly Nazis On Trial, And The Crime Of Germany's Post-War Legal System

Even at 93, Oskar Groening must still be tried for his alleged crimes. But the real question is why German authorities didn't try him decades ago.

93-year-old former SS officer Oskar Groening awaiting trial in Germany
93-year-old former SS officer Oskar Groening awaiting trial in Germany
Heribert Prantl

-OpEd-

HANOVER — Nazi killers have evaded justice for decades and decades. But things have finally changed and even suspected accessories to murder must now face trial. Such is the case of Oskar Gröning, 93, a former SS officer in Auschwitz.

Being any admission of guilt of the alleged criminal, every one of these long overdue trials should start with a confession by the legal authorities themselves. The justice system needs to explain why the defendants are only being charged now — when they are old and feeble — and not 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.

German Federal legal authorities should begin in this case by apologizing to the victims — and to the world in general — for taking so long to proceed with "the State vs. Oskar Gröning in 300,000 cases of accessory to murder." The delay is so exaggerated that punishment almost doesn’t make sense any longer.

Unfortunately, no such confession or apology will be forthcoming — that's not something our code of criminal procedure calls for. Nor was the system designed to mete out punishments that no longer make any sense. And yet that is precisely what the Gröning case involves.

When it comes to the last remaining Nazi henchmen, none of the rules and regulations apply. They could all be easily disregarded. The punishment of these defendants, who have reached the end of their lives, cannot be measured in time alone. It is measured in terms of eternity. The punishment consists in the "finding of personal guilt" of the defendant, in legally acknowledging the abhorrent truth.

It is not the fault of the current generation of Lord Justices that there has been barely any judicial review of Nazi crimes over the last few decades. They attempt to do what can be done at this stage. They install memorial plaques in the facades of their buildings to honor their Jewish colleagues, many of whom were banned or killed. And they try the remaining culprits and their accessories, provided they are still alive.

Many presidents of the Court allow for the true story of their courts to be written. They do not spare their Nazi predecessors and do not shrink form the task of naming and shaming the Lord Justices who simply tore the swastika from their robes and served happily in what was then West Germany.

In 1954, a convinced National Socialist became president of the Court of Munich. Earlier, as a public prosecutor, he had been responsible for charging Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit priest and outspoken Nazi opponent.

Last-second justice

And this was not necessarily a special occurrence in West Germany. Beneath the robes, brown uniforms were still showing. But at that time the legal authorities devoted themselves with dogged determination to fighting the Cold War — they devoted themselves in such a way that there was no energy left to address the Nazi past.

The enlightenment of the public about the Holocaust only began with the Auschwitz trial of 1964/1965. This particular trial was the work of one man, Frankfurt District Attorney Fritz Bauer. Without this man, who died in 1968, the general public would have continued to shy away from the crimes of the Nazis. And even then, the judicial clarification of these crimes was a half-hearted affair.

The legal authorities pretended that there was only one culprit, namely Hitler. Everyone else in the Nazi regime was considered to be just an accessory. The accessories were spared while the victims were made to remember each and every detail of their torment and agony, including the time, date and weather conditions.

The real turning point came decades later, at the John Demjanjuk trial in 2011. Ever since this trial, any sort of collaboration with the Nazi "machinery of death" has been seen as accessory to murder. Which is why Oskar Gröning, who was an accountant of Auschwitz, can now be tried at a court of law.

What is happening now amounts to last-second justice. Thank God, though, for this last second. It is a good thing that the legal authorities are attempting to draw this moment out — not to compensate for their own failings by trying old, feeble men, but to do what can still be done. Even at this late hour, it's imperative that they themselves overturn the unbelievable negation of the law that marked the Nazi era, and that they make this a tangible reality for all generations to come.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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