The number of former Nazi party members in Germany’s Justice Ministry grew compared to the number of acting Nazis serving the department during World War II, indicating that officials protected, or ignored, those guilty of heinous war crimes by folding them into the country’s new legal system, according to a new report.
History has a way of repeating itself, officials say the study warns, and current situations in which officials use the justice system for political gain mirror those wrongs perpetrated by former Nazi party members.
"Injustice can appear in the guise of the law," Heiko Maas, Germany's justice minister, said when he presented the report Monday in Berlin.
The study, known as the Rosenberg project, examined previously classified documents to gain insight into the era between 1950 and 1973. Researchers found that some 77 percent of senior officials in the Justice Ministry had once identified as Nazis, a portion higher than during the Third Reich, the period between 1933 and 1945 when Adolf Hitler controlled Germany, and much higher than researchers expected.
The group included Nazi-era prosecutor Eduard Dreher, a man who sought the death penalty for petty criminals, and Max Merten, who played a role in deporting Jews from Greece.
While US authorities sought justice by putting 16 lawyers and jurists who played a role in the Nazi regime on trial in 1947, Germany tried one lone prosecutor after establishing the West German Federal Republic in 1949.
Many of those working for the ministry in the post-war years came from backgrounds as lawyers or judges in Nazi Germany, and came to the department to provide legal advice as West Germany rebuilt itself. By coming together and closing ranks, the network of former Nazis not only protected one another from legal prosecution but also bound together to create the nation’s laws.
"The Nazi-era lawyers went on to cover up old injustice rather than to uncover it and thereby created new injustice," Mr. Maas said.
Today, Germany continues to unpack its dark past, and officials are trying to gauge how much influence former Nazi officials had on the nation's current policies. This includes rethinking Germany’s murder laws and providing rehabilitation programs to some 50,000 men accused of homosexual acts and punished criminally until 1969.
Maas warned officials worldwide to remain vigilant of corruption, citing recent controversies regarding judicial appointments in Poland and Donald Trump’s threats to persecute Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server as modern-day instances of politics driving the justice system.
"Knowledge of history can sharpen people's senses for situations where human rights and the rule of law are called into question again," Maas said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.