Nothing is to be gained by trying to prosecute suspected war criminals of half a century ago
If Konrad Kalejs committed one 10th of the crimes he is said to have been involved in at the Salaspils concentration camp, he was and remains a monster who will, if there is any justice, die a lonely and painful death. Not before time either.
But should an 86-year-old be prosecuted, in Britain, 55 years after the second world war ended, for what he did long ago in his native Latvia? Even if the evidence against him (and identification evidence is always tricky) were rock-solid, the answer should be "no", just as it was when the ill-fated war crimes act was pushed through parliament in 1991.
It is not that the Holocaust was not the darkest moment of modern European history. An uncle of mine was present when British troops liberated the camp at Belsen ("Tough soldiers from the slums of Glasgow wept," he said). I have known about it almost all my life and, if anything, the sheer horror gets worse with the passage of time.
Of that other great stain on Europe's recent past, the Atlantic slave trade, it can at least be said that instrumental rationality underpinned it; that, however brutal and morally repugnant it was and is, there was a point to it: economic exploitation of the weak by the strong.
The Holocaust was a costly and bureaucratic form of industrialised murder with no point at all and we are right to remember it as something special, a warning to us for ever. But there are objections, both practical and principled, to the pursuit of old men, understandable though the obsession is among many Jewish survivors. It is only human to feel guilty to have survived at all.
But for the rest of us, no. The practical obstacles are serious and few late prosecutions around the world have succeeded - just one in Britain, where last April Anthony Sawoniuk, a 78-year-old retired railway ticket inspector, was sentenced to life imprisonment by Mr Justice Potts after an eight-week trial at the Old Bailey, for murdering 18 Jews in a remote area of Nazi-occupied Belarus.
Even at Nuremburg, before the victors decided to draw what Churchill called "a sponge across the horrors of the past," the acquittal rate was one in three.
The theoretical problems are as vivid as they were when the House of Lords, full of old soldiers and lawyers who knew the score, rejected the first war crimes bill by 207 votes to 74 in April 1990. Retrospective legislation to prosecute offences outside British jurisdiction, let alone so long ago, was a bad idea, their lordships opined. Terrible things were done on all sides, time to move on.
Many Tory ministers felt the same. But Margaret Thatcher had been determined (she had recently the visited the massacre site at Babi Yar), so her successor dutifully pushed it through under the parliament acts.
The average age of MPs sitting in that parliament had been six in 1939, one peer had noted. The disparity of experience is far greater now. Sir Edward Heath (83) is the Commons's sole surviving serious combatant from the second world war. For most of us it is book learning and selective hindsight.
Lady Thatcher (who did not volunteer when she reached 18 in 1943) is a good case in point. She was happy to see the dregs of Hitler's genocide pursued, the corporals and the Kalejses, less keen on the prosecution of General Pinochet, whose alleged crimes and responsibility were more easily documented.
Pro-Pinochet forces argued that this was Chile's issue, not ours. A good point, not least in Spain where a far bloodier past has been swept under history's carpet in the interests of what South Africans call truth and reconciliation, if not the whole truth and reconciliation. Imagine our feeling if Gerry Adams had been arrested in New York last year ?
Yes, there is a declared determination by the international community to hold domestic tyrants to greater account, in Serbia or Iraq, currently in that Scottish Lockerbie court in Holland. As with Latvian camp capos, we seem to pick on easy targets, pariah states, just as we picked on the Germans (but not the Austrians) for war guilt in 1945, while taking care to exempt their rocket scientists.
All states have their dark secrets, too painful to behold, ours in Ireland, the Swiss in their bank vaults, France's - perhaps the most interesting case in post-war Europe - in uncovering what really happened to at least 200 Algerian demonstrators in Paris, said to have been murdered by police and secretly buried outside the city in 1961.
On those allegations the European parliament is eloquently silent. The same selective indignation applies, does it not, to the post-Holocaust state of Israel, whose determination to ensure that (as their soldiers say) "Masada shall not fall again", has frequently taken it well beyond justifiable conduct at home and abroad. That calculation is part of the current Latvian uproar too, a useful distraction from current realities.
Do not take my word for it. Here is a Jewish Holocaust refugee, quoted in the 1991 debate: "Retribution is both evil and futile. This is England. We do not indulge in show trials, however fairly conducted."
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