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History doesn’t forget: student helps take Nazi to court

December 7, 2018

Courtesy of Devaki Rajiv
HEALING HISTORY: Sophie al Mutawaly ’19 recounts her experience helping on a Nazi trial in Germany.

While neo-Nazism may have entered the vernacular of today’s political discourse, Sophie al Mutawaly ’19 saw earlier this year that even the Hitler era hasn’t quite come to a close.

A German citizen, al Mutawaly spent this past summer as a legal intern at the law firm Rückel & Collegen in Munich. There she helped indict a formerly-enlisted Schutzstaffel (SS) man who worked as a guard at Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland between 1942 and 1944. The 95-year-old defendant, unnamed for legal reasons, stands accused of accessory to murder. While the exact amount of deaths the defendant holds responsibility for remains undetermined, prosecutors estimate that the defendant is responsible for at least hundreds of the over 60,000 murders at the Stutthof camp.

“The whole argument is that by keeping people from being able to run away, you are accessory to murder,” al Mutawaly said.

Working under Christoph Rückel, a lawyer representing a group of the plaintiffs in the case against this concentration camp guard, al Mutawaly undertook vital pre-trial research.

Recounting her role in the case, al Mutawaly described the arduous task of reading copious amounts of historical documents.

“I was looking at what atrocities were committed within the concentration camps,” al Mutawaly said. “What was the role of a watchman, or a guard, what schooling did they go through.”

Her aim was to disprove the defendant’s claim that he couldn’t see what was happening. To unpack this attitude of denial, al Mutawaly’s boss also took frequent trips to the Stutthof camp, where he would stand on watchtowers to see how much he could see.

Regardless of whether or not the defendant could see the brutality of the camp, al Mutawaly said he must have been able to smell the burning of flesh.

“He could smell death,” she said.

While al Mutawaly admitted that indicting a 95-year-old man, who due to his old age can only be in court for two hours at a time and will most likely not see jail, seems futile, she asserted that it is vital to set history right.

“[For a while] after the war … you had to have pulled the trigger yourself or have been the mastermind behind [the Holocaust], so someone like this guard wouldn’t have been tried,” she said.

The charge of accessory to murder for working as a guard at a Nazi camp, is quite nascent in regards to its legal precedence. A 2011 case convicting John Demjanjuk—a Nazi guard at the Sobibór camp in Poland—of 27,900 counts of accessory to murder, first set this precedence. However, Demjanjuk’s death in the midst of his pending appeal of the court’s decision derailed the case. Under German law, Demjanjuk, on account of his death, was not guilty. Reflecting on the Demjanjuk case, al Mutawaly stressed the importance of solidifying precedent through cases like this current one, despite the likely lack of real punishment.

“It’s not about punishing him anymore, it’s about making it right,” she said.

The defendant was 18 years old at the time he worked as a guard. As a result, he is currently being tried as a minor because at the time of his actions he was under 21.

The defendant’s age at the time has been a staple of his defense, claiming that he was young and naïve. While al Mutawaly is receptive to an Arendtian, “banality of evil” understanding of Nazism, she maintains that the defendant’s lack of self-responsibility is unacceptable. It is this sense of accountability that the case hopes to implement within German legal precedent.

The case is currently in trial proceedings in Münster. When asked about the expected length of the trial, al Mutawaly quipped that since the team can only meet for two hours a day, it will probably take a long time.

Although al Mutawaly—back on campus—is no longer working on the case, Rückel still keeps in touch, updating her on the happenings of the trial.

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