Of Nazis, Crimes and Punishment

Some offenses are so hideous that even the distance of history offers no shield. But that doesn’t make justice easy.

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer based in Nashville who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

  • March 8, 2021
Of Nazis, Crimes and Punishment 1
Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; Photographs by U.S. Department of Justice, via Associated Press and Srdjan Suki/EPA, via Shutterstock

NASHVILLE — Two weeks ago, the U.S. government deported Friedrich Karl Berger, a longtime resident of Oak Ridge, Tenn., for participating in Nazi war crimes. Mr. Berger was returned to Germany, where authorities have declined to press charges of their own. He had lived in the United States since 1959.

The crime for which he was deported took place in the winter of 1945, during the last months of World War II, when Mr. Berger was 19 years old. According to the Justice Department, he was an armed guard at a satellite site of Neuengamme, a concentration camp near Meppen. His assignment was to supervise the prisoners digging armored trenches in deadly winter weather. When the Nazis were forced to withdraw, he guarded the surviving prisoners on a nearly two-week march back to the main camp. The evacuation alone killed some 70 people.

At his trial last year, Mr. Berger acknowledged working as a security guard at the subcamp. But he denied guarding the evacuation march, denied witnessing any mistreatment of prisoners, denied knowing of any deaths at the camps themselves. Nevertheless, a federal immigration judge in Memphis ruled that Mr. Berger’s “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” amounted to a war crime.

At 95, Mr. Berger has had ample time — and achieved ample maturity — to examine his own conscience and repent of his own actions, but he appears to believe he did nothing wrong. Or perhaps he only believes that actions in the distant past no longer warrant repercussion: “After 75 years, this is ridiculous. I cannot believe it,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I cannot understand how this can happen in a country like this. You’re forcing me out of my home.”

The dark irony of such an assertion aside, I wonder if Mr. Berger simply doesn’t remember what he did, either because he’s blocked it out or because so much time has passed since he trudged in the snow alongside people who were dropping dead in their tracks. I once asked my great-grandmother, then in her 90s, to tell me about my great-grandfather. They were married for more than 30 years, but by then he had been dead for longer than that, and she told me she no longer remembered very much. “It’s almost like it happened in a dream,” she said.

Maybe that’s how memory works after a long succession of quiet days in a quiet life, but how does memory work when what you’ve lived is more a nightmare than a dream?

Some creatures are so manifestly vulnerable that they inspire a near universal tenderness: a lost child, a bird with a broken wing, a person near death. In the presence of vulnerability, most of us instinctively stop what we are doing and try to help. What are we to make of those who don’t? Of those who respond to vulnerability with indifference, or worse?

We know enough about brain development to understand that such people are often too young to recognize the true import of what they are seeing or doing. Until 2005, this country allowed even juvenile offenders to be executed, though our laws don’t treat juveniles as adults in other respects. Teenagers are neurological works in progress. They have not yet developed the full capacity for moral reasoning, for impulse control, for understanding the long-term implications of their behavior.

In Roper v. Simmons the U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing the neurological differences between children and adults, forbade the execution of offenders younger than 18. “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority, “the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” Neuroscience tells us the same thing about older teenagers and very young adults, too, but we allow them to be executed anyway.

Mr. Berger was 19 when he marched 70 people to their deaths outside Meppen, Germany, in 1945. If he had committed that crime at the same age in the United States today, he would most likely face the death penalty in states, including Tennessee, that still offer juries that horrific option. He definitely would not have married and raised a family in a small town. He definitely would not have been given 75 years’ worth of ordinary days in which to carry out a meaningful life — working hard, being neighborly, contributing to the community.

It’s easier for me to feel mercy for the not-quite-adults sentenced to death row, even if they committed hideous crimes, when I know that they grew up in homes where no one protected them when they were frightened or fed them when they were hungry. Especially when I know that they have learned to live exemplary lives in prison.

It’s much harder to know how to think about the young Friedrich Karl Bergers who stood silent while innocent people were worked to death on their watch, even if they have lived good lives in the years since. Neuroscience tells us that they deserve the same understanding as the young offenders sentenced to death row for drug violence, but I can’t seem to find any understanding in my heart for the young Nazis.

Well, life isn’t fair, and we all know it, but justice is about doing our best to impose fairness in an unfair world. And the presence of the once-young Friedrich Karl Bergers among us — living a good life, causing no trouble, exacting no harm — impels us into an uncomfortable gray area. Somehow we must weigh the imperatives of justice against the imperatives of compassion for the heedlessness of youth.

In that context, what happened to the Oak Ridge Nazi seems to me both far too little and also exactly right. No punishment can possibly restore to life the people who died in a concentration camp that Mr. Berger helped to guard, and exile in an assisted living facility is hardly fit recompense for such unspeakable crimes. But sending him to prison at the age of 95 for what he did as a teenager also seems wrong. Surely deportation from his home of more than 60 years is a fair penalty for a nonagenarian for whom prison could provide no possible rehabilitation.

So which is it: real justice, or too little too late? I honestly don’t know.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”

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