operation last chance poster

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, a campaign has been inaugurated in Germany to track down the final remaining Nazi war criminals and bring them to trial.

Some 2,000 posters featuring the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp are being displayed in Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne.

They ask individuals with information to contact the Simon Wiesenthal Center, according to the BBC.

The US-based Wiesenthal Center estimates there are five dozen war criminals – ranging from death camp guards to members of Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads responsible for mass killings – still alive in Germany and fit to stand trial.

“Unfortunately, very few people who committed the crimes had to pay for them,” according to Efraim Zuroff, a leading international Nazi hunter and the center’s Jerusalem branch director. “The passage of time in no way diminishes the crimes.”

As part of its “Operation Last Chance II” project,” the center is offering rewards of as much as $33,000 for information which helps in the prosecution of war criminals in Germany.

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moscow show trials

It’s likely that all of us, at some point in our lives, aspire to be the best at something. When one is young, it sometimes doesn’t matter what that “something” is; the goal is simply to be No. 1.

Vasili Blokhin achieved such prominence, even if many don’t recognize his name.

He was Joseph Stalin’s executioner for decades and personally killed tens of thousands of individuals between the 1920s and early 1950s. Today, he is recognized as the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history.

Blokhin, who served in the Russian army in World War I, joined the Cheka, the notorious security arm of the Bolsheviks, in 1921. He quickly gained the notice of Stalin and before long was heading up the department that handled clandestine torture and executions.

In 1926, Stalin personally chose Blokhin as chief executioner for the Soviet secret police.

During Stalin’s tenure, this arm of government, which later became known as the NKVD, is conservatively estimated to have executed more than 800,000 individuals.

Blokhin not only oversaw mass executions, but personally pulled the trigger on every high-profile execution.

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 Galician SS-Volunteer Infantry Division

Inserted in the opening paragraph of Slate magazine’s story about a Nazi collaborator who was discovered last week to have been living in the US for the past 60-plus years were these two sentences, which would be slightly amusing if not representative of a grave injustice:

“Michael Karkoc now lives in Minnesota and when he entered the United States in 1949 told authorities he had not performed military service during World War II. That wasn’t really accurate.”

No, indeed it wasn’t. Karkoc was a founding member and an officer of the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and later was an officer in the SS Galician Division.

There appears to be plenty of evidence that the company Karkoc commanded massacred civilians, including burning villages filled with women and children, and that he was at the scene of the atrocities, even if there’s no proof Karkoc himself didn’t actually participate.

The Associated Press broke the story about Karkoc on Friday and provided an exhaustive report on not just the fact he’s been living in the United States for decades, but included background between groups allied with the Nazis and how many individuals avoided being brought to justice under the guise of fighting communism.

It will be hard for Karkoc to plead mistaken identity; in 1995 he published a Ukrainian-language memoir that stated he helped found the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion in 1943 to fight on the side of Germany – and wrote that he served as a company commander in the unit, which received orders directly from the SS, through the end of the war.

The memoir is available at the US Library of Congress, according to The Associated Press.

(Above: A 1944 photo shows head of the SS Heinrich Himmler, center, reviewing troops  of the Galician SS-Volunteer Infantry Division, of which Michael Karkoc was a  member.)

For decades Soviet officials blamed the massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war during World War II on the Nazis. The truth didn’t officially come out until 50 years later, when Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted his nation’s responsibility for the mass slaughter.

However, recently declassified documents, released Monday, show that American POWs sent secret coded messages to Washington, DC, with news regarding the massacre at the Katyn Forest that offered proof that the Germans could not have committed the killings.

The information, though, was suppressed by the US government, possibly because President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t want to draw the ire of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whom the Americans needed to help defeat Germany and Japan, according to The Associated Press.

The Katyn massacre was a mass execution of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police the spring of 1940. The victims were murdered with pistol shots to the back of the head, killed in the Katyn Forest in Russia, Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere.

Of the total killed, about 8,000 were officers taken prisoner during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers, and the remainder were Polish intelligentsia arrested for allegedly being “intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests.”

The Soviets’ aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control, according to The Associated Press.

A 2004 report by the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation said the killings were specifically intended destroy the strength of the Polish nation: “The physical elimination of these people was meant to prevent the rebirth of Polish statehood based on their intellectual potential.”

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Just when thinks government officials can’t possibly be any more tone-deaf when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues, along comes another dim-witted bureaucrat or two eager and able to lower the bar.

In Hungary, prosecutors said Monday that investigating a 97-year-old Nazi war criminal found alive and well in Budapest was “problematic” because the events took place so long ago and in a different country.

Laszlo Csatary has spent the past 15 years living undisturbed since he was deported from Canada for his actions during World War II, which included helping organize the shipping of nearly 16,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.

A probe into Csatary began in September after information was received from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, which ranks him number one on their wanted list, the public prosecutors’ office said.

The crime is alledged to have taken place in Kosice, which was then in Hungary but is now in Slovakia.

Prosecutors in Hungary said the investigation “therefore has to explore an event remote in both time and place,” with “significant part” of the probe dedicated to finding possible witnesses, some of whom may live abroad, according to Agence France-Presse.

“It took place 68 years ago in an area that now falls under the jurisdiction of another country – which also with regard to the related international conventions raises several investigative and legal problems,” a statement said.

“Finding the answers to the aforementioned questions is a precondition to clarifying the facts and determining further investigative actions.”

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Nearly 70 years after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet Red Army in the waning days of World War II, the circumstances surrounding his ultimate fate still remain unclear but evidence increasingly points to a Soviet cover-up.

A newly found Swedish document shows how the KGB intervened as late as the early1990s to stop an investigation into the circumstances behind Wallenberg’s disappearance, two US-based researchers said earlier this week.

Wallenberg is credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis between July and December 1944. While serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest, he issued protective passports to Jews and sheltered them in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

Wallenberg disappeared after being detained in Budapest by Soviet officials on Jan. 17, 1945.

The Russians have said he was executed on July 17, 1947, but unverified witness accounts and newly uncovered evidence suggest he may have lived beyond that date, according to the Associated Press.

Wallenberg researchers were hoping that key pieces of the puzzle regarding the diplomat’s fate would emerge when an international commission was granted access to Soviet prison records as communist rule was crumbling.

“But a document from the Swedish Foreign Ministry supports claims that the KGB – the former Soviet secret police and intelligence agency – acted to obstruct that effort, said German researcher Susanne Berger who consulted a Swedish-Russian working group that conducted a 10-year investigation until 2001,” according to the wire service.

The Sept. 16, 1991, memorandum from the Swedish Embassy in Moscow cites the former head of the Soviet “Special Archive,” Anatoly Prokopenko, as telling Swedish diplomats that the KGB instructed him to stop a search for documents by researchers working for the first International Wallenberg Commission.

Prokopenko also said the KGB wanted copies of all documents that the researchers had already viewed, according to the memo, which was made available to the Associated Press by Berger. Its authenticity was confirmed by the Foreign Ministry.

The document was significant because it illustrates how since the end of the Cold War researchers have struggled to get access to crucial documents from Soviet archives, Berger said.

“The action in 1991 has, unfortunately, proved symptomatic, rather than an exception to the rule,” Berger told the Associated Press. “Twenty years later, we are still facing this fundamental problem.”

In an interview with the wire service on Monday, Prokopenko said the researchers had been euphoric when they found an archive document on Wallenberg’s transfer from one Soviet prison to another, sharing their discovery with other members of the commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate.

“That was a mistake, the archivist implied, saying the KGB officers on the panel reacted quickly, warning authorities, and Prokopenko was immediately ordered to bar the researchers’ access to the files,” according to the AP.

Prokopenko said he complied because he was working to open the archives to the public, taking advantage of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms, and realized that open disobedience would lead to his immediate ouster.

“I had to make a sacrifice for the sake of uncovering numerous other secrets of the archive,” Prokopenko said.

He added that following a brief period of openness before and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, authorities have grown increasingly reluctant to allow public access to the archives.

“The situation has grown worse, and even the files that were opened to the public in 1991-1992 were classified again later,” he said.

The Swedish government declassified parts of the memo after Prokopenko mentioned the KGB interference in an 1997 article in a Russian newspaper, but it didn’t become publicly known until Berger obtained it this month.

Wallenberg, who would have turned 100 this year, was arrested the day after the Red Army seized Budapest, along with his Hungarian driver Vilmos Langfelder. The Russians have never explained why they detained the pair.

Russian scholar Vadim Birstein, one of the researchers working for the first Wallenberg commission, told the Associated Press they had just found some previously unknown documents when the archive was closed to them in the spring of 1991.

“We were stopped exactly after I found three documents: two with the name Wallenberg on it and one with the name Langfelder – and (the authorities) said they weren’t hiding anything!”

Birstein and Berger, who are based in the US, said that though they and other researchers have since been granted access to study some Wallenberg files, important archive material has still not been made available.

“At the key junctures, the doors have remained closed,” Berger said, noting that even the first piece of material that was handed over by the Russians in 1991, and was meant to illustrate a new openness on their side, turned out to be censored.

It concerned interrogation material suggesting that Wallenberg had been questioned on July 23, 1947, which would have been six days after his alleged death.

Russia has failed to produce a reliable death certificate or hand over Wallenberg’s remains – circumstances which have prompted researchers to continue efforts to try to tap Russian authorities for more information.

As Sweden’s envoy in Budapest from July 1944, Wallenberg not only saved 20,000 Jews by giving them Swedish travel documents or moving them to safe houses, he also dissuaded German officers from massacring the 70,000 inhabitants of the city’s ghetto.

(Above: Budapest plaque honoring Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The plaque is affixed to the wall of the building where Wallenberg was abducted by Soviet authorities in 1945.)

Nearly a century after between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what is considered the one of the first examples of modern genocide, Turkey continues to fight efforts to label the event as such.

Turkey’s prime minister on Saturday sharply criticized France for a bill that would make it a crime to deny the 1915-23 mass killing of Armenians was genocide, The Associated Press reported.

“Saying France should investigate what he claimed was its own ‘dirty and bloody history’ in Algeria and Rwanda, Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted Turkey would respond ‘through all kinds of diplomatic means,’” the wire service reported.

While Turkish officials quibble over labels, there’s little question of the horrors inflicted upon Armenians by Ottoman Turks as their empire collapsed.

However, Turkish leaders reject the term “genocide” for the tragedy, arguing that the toll is inflated, that there were deaths on both sides and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Later this week, the lower house of French Parliament will debate a proposal that would make denying that the massacre was genocide punishable by up to a year in prison and $58,500 in fines, putting it on par with Holocaust denial, which was banned in the country in 1990.

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A delegation of nearly five dozen Namibians were in Berlin Friday to receive the skulls of 20 indigenous people killed during a massacre by colonizing German forces more than a century ago.

It is hoped that the solemn ceremony will be a first step toward a greater reckoning with Germany’s brief but brutal African adventure a century ago, according to Agence France-Presse.

“We have come to first and foremost to receive the mortal human remains of our forefathers and mothers and to return them to the land of their ancestors,” delegation member Ueriuka Festus Tjikuua told reporters in Berlin.

He said the mission intended to “extend a hand of friendship” to Germans and encourage a dialogue “with the full participation and involvement of the representatives of the descendants of those that suffered heavily under dreadful and atrocious German colonial rule.”

The skulls are among an estimated 300 taken to Germany after a massacre of indigenous Namibians at the start of the last century during an anti-colonial uprising in what was then called South West Africa, which was a German colony from 1884 to 1915.

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Earlier this week marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the largest military operation in human history, yet not a single US newspaper bothered to so much as note the event with a story or news brief.

Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, as more than 4.5 million troops invaded along a nearly 2,000 mile front that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in human history in both manpower and casualties, and its failure was a turning point in the Germany’s fortunes.

That no US paper apparently could be bothered devoting a few inches of copy to this monumental engagement, the results of which in no small part set the stage for Cold War and the remainder of the 20th century, is both mystifying and a testament to the insular nature of American society.

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Japan began excavations today at a former army medical school to search for human remains linked to a notorious World War II program that is said to have conducted biological warfare in China and live experiments on foreign prisoners of war.

It is uncertain if the excavation will unearth anything, but the effort is a sign that the government is open to the possibility of facing its long-kept wartime secrets, including the experiments conducted by the military’s shadowy Unit 731, according to the Associated Press.

Unit 731 was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel.

Its activities, which included subjecting prisoners to vivisection without anesthesia, have never been officially acknowledged by the Japanese government even though historians and participants have documented them.

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