In his final words of advice to his son and successor Solomon, King David reminds him of the act of murder and treachery committed by Joab son of Zeruiah. “Do therefore according to thy wisdom,” says the dying monarch, “and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace”—that is, don’t let Joab die peacefully of old age. A similar admonishment, perhaps, can be offered to those skeptical about the utility of prosecuting the one-hundred-and-one-year-old Josef Schutze, whom a German court recently sentenced to five years in prison for being an accessory to the murder of 3,518 people in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Efraim Zuroff, who helped build the case against the former SS officer, notes that Schutze’s lawyer offered
a litany of all the usual arguments against the “belated trials,” the passage of decades since the crimes, the advanced age of the defendant, his ostensibly minor role (“small cog” argument) in the camp, and the fact that more culpable criminals were not held accountable. Schutze was then given an opportunity to address the court, but instead of arousing any sympathy, he was pathetic, claiming that he had no idea why he was put on trial and claiming to have been a law-abiding citizen all his life.
Thus the main drama was to take place the next day, Tuesday, when Judge Udo Lechtermann would deliver his verdict. . . . He referred to the documents which proved that [Schutze] served in Sachsenhausen, including for example a letter written by his parents to friends that their son was “with the SS in Oranienberg,” the site of the concentration camp. He then presented a concise summary of the horrific crimes committed there, identifying the various groups of victims: Jews, Roma, homosexuals, socialists and other opponents of the Nazi regime—who were among the estimated 55,000 victims executed by experiments, forced labor, shooting, and inhumane conditions of hunger and disease, noting the importance of the role played by SS guards like Schutze.
So little justice has been achieved in Germany when it comes to Nazi crimes, and so many important figures in the implementation of the Final Solution have escaped punishment, that there are many people who scoff at victories like the one in this case. My approach is that even minimal justice is better than no justice. Anyone who saw the faces of the relatives of the victims of Sachsenhausen (who under German law can join the prosecution) when Schutze was convicted, will understand that the closure they felt when he was convicted is priceless.