He has been accused of being responsible for the deaths of over 215,000 people at Auschwitz while his 19 year old self was a guard. Breyer had admitted to being at Auschwitz, but claimed to have been stationed outside of the main camp. Either way, the United States attempted to remove his citizenship in 1992 but without much success. It's taken nearly 22 years, but once again, Mr. Breyer is making headlines.
This time it was not the United States to attempt to bring Breyer to justice for his participation, but the German government. He was arrested in Philadelphia on June 17, 2014 after the district court in Weiden, Germany issued a warrant for his arrest charging him with 158 counts of complicity in the commission of murder. Each count was a trainload of prisoners killed between May 1944 and October 1944. Currently Germany is trying to work out extradition from the United States to bring Breyer before a court.
Seeing as the Holocaust is one of the main reasons I initially pursued the field of history, I am very passionate about things of this nature. Every time an ex-perpetrator is discovered I follow the coverage like a hawk. Many times I have been asked if by this point (since many of the remaining perpetrators who have not been brought to justice are in their late 80s or 90s) if it is worth it at this point. Seeing as this is a museum blog I will not go into it too much, but in this humble intern's opinion, there is no real cut off for bringing people of this caliber to justice. My Dad used to ask me when I was about to do something I probably shouldn't if I was prepared to do the time for the crime? For the most part, running in the middle of the street or stealing that extra cookie was not normally worth it. The same concept applies to scenarios like this, in my opinion.
Many have claimed that they did not know what was happening in the camps, but in the case of Mr. Breyer, it is hard to justify that. He admitted to being at Auschwitz. Can it be justified if he was scared of confronting his superiors over what was going on? He never said he felt any remorse of what was occurring. I have always wondered how many guards and officers at the camps truly felt that way, after many at the war crimes trials after the war said they were only following orders and felt that their lives and their family's lives were in jeopardy if they did not continue working in the brutal way that the SS has become notorious for operating as in the camps.
It is important to be reminded of how far humanity fell during the time of the Holocaust. As a historian, I sometimes feel it is my job to try and educate people as to all the faults of past generations so that things of this nature do not happen again. In my nerdiness I envision myself a super hero parallel with Captain America or Iron Man. I am History Girl, educating people's misunderstanding of the past one document or artifact at a time. As I had the opportunity to visit The Grout Museum last weekend and see their exhibit on The Bosnian genocide in Prijedor in 1992, I realize that I, and my fellow historians, have a lot of work cut out for us. George Santayana said it best when he said "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." With a quote like that it is hard to look past the participation (no matter how small one may claim it be) of people like Johann Breyer.
I guess what should have been a short answer, once again turned into a long one with me.
There have been opportunity for me to meet a plethora of people throughout my lifetime that have had various opinions on the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. The one that sticks out greatly in my head is the schoolmate of mine who asked why it should matter to her since the Holocaust occurred in Europe and we live "not in Europe". Such eloquence she had. It may not have occurred in our backyards but Americans still faced the Holocaust in many ways. 350 soldiers captured in the Battle of the Bulge were sent to a sub-camp of Buchenwald in February 1945, by the time they were liberated after a death march in April 1945, less then half of them had survived.
Those that lived in Algona or Kossuth County understood a little of what camp life was or what it should have been to any prisoner of war, whether for political\societal reasons or because they were soldiers of another country. Some men from Kossuth County were even participants in the liberation of some concentration camps.
Ralph Lindhorst was a combat MP in Europe. He fought on the beaches of Normandy, froze in the chilly tundra of Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, and in the Spring of 1945, entered Nordhausen, which was a sub-camp of Dora-Mittelbau. There he took photographs that captured the horrors of what the Nazis did to those they felt were inferior to them.
And I will remove myself from my Historian soapbox and go back to the archives.