Accused 89-Year-Old Nazi Facing Extradition to Germany
Crimes against humanity such as those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust should never go unpunished. That seems like a completely obvious statement, one that everyone can get behind. But what if the crime was committed 70 years ago by man who is now 89 years old? That’s the question at issue in the case of Johann Breyer.
Since the end of World War II, the world has been on the hunt for members of Hitler’s administration. If a suspected perpetrator was found, he was usually extradited to Germany and put on trial there. This practice has continued all the way into 2014. But should Breyer, an 89-year-old man with signs of dementia, face trial for crimes he is accused of committing at the Auschwitz Death Camp many decades ago?
Johann Breyer has lived in the United States since 1952 when he immigrated here from Czechoslovakia. His mother was born in the United States, which granted him American citizenship. He worked as a toolmaker in Philadelphia, got married and had kids. Then, in 1992, he was accused of having Nazi ties and the Justice Department attempted to deport him.
He was ultimately allowed to stay, as the Justice Department lacked evidence to prove he took an active role in the killings. Breyer claimed he was a guard in the prison section of the camp, and since he was a minor when he served, he could not be held responsible for his actions. Basically, his argument was he took no active role in the killings and was instead forced to be there. This whole debate had little actual impact on Breyer’s life, as his name stayed out of the public eye.
After its failed deportation effort, the Justice Department attempted to persuade the German government to extradite Breyer, but the Germans didn’t act until very recently. After examining camp rosters and newly disclosed documents, the German government now claims that Breyer was not part of the prison guards, but rather a member of the infamous SS battalion, “Death’s Head,” trained to be particularly brutal to prisoners. The German government has charged Breyer with 158 counts of aiding and abetting murder — one for each train that arrived at the Auschwitz Death Camp during the six months Breyer was present. To put that number in perspective, those trains carried approximately 216,000 Jews.
Breyer faced these charges and potential extradition to Germany on Wednesday morning. Though he seemed confused, he told the judge he understood the charges against him, and he is now being held without bail until his extradition hearing on August 21.
The DOJ has charged more than 130 Nazi suspects in the last 35 years, but none were as old as Breyer. This brings us back to my original question — should a man that old, suffering from the onset of dementia, face charges for the crimes he perpetrated more than half a century ago?
My gut reaction to the thought of a nearly 90-year-old man in jail is that no, he shouldn’t be tried at this point; however, it angers me that Breyer got to live a normal, fulfilling life. He is innocent until proven guilty, but if he is proven guilty he does not deserve to die a free man. If guilty, he was complicit in the deaths of more than 200,000 people, yet has gotten to live without consequences. I would imagine that a Holocaust survivor probably feels quite enraged when he hears that a Nazi responsible for such horrific crimes has gotten to live a free life. We owe it to those victims and their families to bring anyone involved in these crimes to justice, regardless of age. Its been 70 years since Breyer committed these crimes, but time hasn’t run out yet.
Matt DeWilde (@matt_dewilde25) is a member of the American University class of 2016 majoring in politics and considering going to law school. He loves writing about politics, reading, watching Netflix, and long walks on the beach. Contact Matt at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [Greg Heywood via Flickr]