Yesterday in Detmold, Germany 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning was sentenced to five years in prison.

Reinhold Hanning #1Hanning’s sentence came in response to the guilty verdict in his trial for being an accessory to murder in the deaths of at least 170,000 people during the time he served as an SS guard at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, from January 1943 to mid-1944.

There were approximately 6,500 SS guards who worked at Auschwitz. Of those 6,500 guards only 29 were ever tried in West Germany and 20 in the Communist East. The rest were left to live out their lives in peace with only their memories, mostly kept secret, to haunt them.

Much of the difficulty in prosecuting Germans who participated in the horrors of Nazism during the war can be traced to the fact that the German judicial system was riddled with lawyers and judges who had been Nazis and had a vested interest in burying the past. But it was not just Nazis who wanted to forget Germany’s painful history.

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, British journalist Alison Smale who has covered Nazi trials since the Second World War, reports on an encounter she had in Germany with a middle-aged German who, commenting on a recent war crimes trial complained that,

It just brings it all up again. If we did not have these trials, then foreigners might forget the Nazis. (

Would the world be a better place if we all “might forget” events of the Second World War and all the other atrocities that lie scattered throughout human history? Is there any value to remembering?

The atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis lay bare the human capacity for evil. Nazi murder was conducted by, facilitated by, or at least tolerated by, ordinary citizens of sophisticated, “civilized,” highly developed, well-educated countries. It takes more than a few fringe fanatics to identify, arrest, incarcerate, torture, and exterminate 11 million people, including Jews (six million), as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, resisters to the Nazis, clergy, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

In his chilling account of existence in Bergen-Belsen, Abel J. Herzberg wrote,

9 October 1944 – when one sees here how men, big strong men, send women and children on transport, shouting cursing, raging, or when one has seen just once how the SS man transports corpses with a cigarette in his snout, unmoved as if he is transporting manure – no, worse – as if he is transporting bricks, then one knows: this is man. Ecce homo! (John 19:5)

Herzberg, Between Two Streams: A Diary From Bergen-Belsen. trans. Jack Santcross. London: Tauris Parke, 1997, 141.

No doubt many of those responsible for the daily details of the Holocaust were vicious thugs. But, by all accounts, Reinhold Hanning Reinhold Hanning #2was not a heinous monster.  Many of those who made it possible to kill on such a massive scale were people like us.

This machinery of death was not run by barbarian hordes. Nazi genocide was conducted by people who at the end of the day went home to their nice homes to play with their children and listen to classical music. They would not have seemed strange or heinous to us had we met them outside the tangled machinery of death they operated. We might well have felt comfortable in the company of these mass murderers had we met them in a social context apart from their professional lives.

We must be honest about the beast that lurks not far beneath the surface in all people.

The Second World War lays bare the most evil tendencies in human beings.

It is pleasing to think of ourselves as civilized compassionate people. But the horrors of our history must not be ignored for the very reason that facing these realities makes it more difficult for us to fall prey to the facile illusion that we are fundamentally different from those who kept the Nazi killing machine in operation. We ignore the dark side of our nature at our peril.