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“But what are you going to do – let them off because most people would have done it? Imagine if they accepted superior orders as a defence – there would be no Nazi war criminals, only Hitler.” Zuroff has had many decades to reflect on why it’s important to prosecute Nazis, and says that he can recite the “spiel” in his sleep.
He reels off a list of reasons, including the importance of showing the world that heinous crimes will not be forgotten, that old age offers no protection from justice, and that the passage of time does not diminish guilt.
“The most notorious Nazi that Weinsenthal caught was Franz Stangl, the commander of Treblinka – a person who bore responsibility for 800,000 Jews murdered.
He had the deaths of maybe a million people on his non-existent conscience.
In 1987, Schrimm spent two years trying to extradite Josef Schwammberger from Argentina to Germany, which cost around £178,500.
Schwammberger was found guilty of murdering more than 600 Jewish people in the ghetto Przemyśl and spent the rest of his life in prison before he died in 2004.
They devoted a great deal of time to finding SS doctor Aribert Heim, who was known as “Dr Death”, and Eichmann’s assistant Alois Brunner, but both men died before they were discovered.
Schrimm and Zuroff have spent many years investigating men who died before they were brought to justice.
“He said that the problem with Jasenovac was that they didn’t let us finish the job,” says Zuroff. He has looked Nazi criminals in the eyes, and spent a long time talking with the children of Charles Zentai (born Karoly Steiner), a Hungarian-born man who is accused of war crimes and currently lives in Australia.
“That was said more than 50 years afterwards, so he had plenty of time to think about it.” Meeting such notorious criminals can be a trying experience, but Schrimm and Zuroff have different emotional approaches to their jobs. “They wanted to convince me that their father is not guilty,” says Zuroff.
Dr Effraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the US-based Simon Weisenthal Centre, and Kurt Schrimm, head of the German office responsible for investigating Nazi crimes, work in separate countries but towards a common goal: to bring the 90-year-old Nazis to justice.
After the holocaust, political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil”: the many Nazis who committed countless murders not out of psychotic hatred, but a sense of duty towards their jobs.
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In 1998, Zuroff’s work helped imprison the Croatian fascist leader Dinko Šakić, who was commander of the concentration camp Jasenovac, nicknamed “the Auschwitz of the Balkans”.