Return of the Nazi Hunters

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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On Aug. 15, I wrote a piece on Nazi hunting, and non-profits, and what to do when your life's work is complete. Dr. Zuroff, the Nazi hunter in question, has responded in the comments. He writes:

I think in fact, that it is fair to assume that Ms. McArdle was also not aware of the following important statistics that Guy Walters failed to note, since they clearly disprove his thesis. Since January 1, 2001, there have been one hundred successful legal proceedings against Nazi war criminals in the United States, Germany, Italy, Canada, Lithuania, Poland, and France, and there currently are hundreds of ongoing investigations of Holocaust perpetrators in various countries all over the world. In this regard, the fact that the end of Nazi-hunting is indeed approaching, and I admit as much, has led several key countries, and especially Germany, to significantly increase their efforts to bring as many Nazi war criminals as possible to justice, rather than abandon the "noble mission" and give in to the sceptics.

I'm aware, of course, that Nazi hunts continue. But surely, they cannot go on much longer, since not only the men, but also the witnesses are rapidly dying off. Assigning a plausible age to the younger criminals -- say, someone who was 20 in 1942 -- puts even the very youngest in their early 90s. Only 11 percent of the men born in the U.S. in 1922 are still alive, and the longevity for a European who lived through World War II is much lower. Those who are alive today can expect to live less than four years more. There are of course outliers. But the fact remains, we're looking at the joint probability of two events that are themselves becoming more unlikely: uncovering a Nazi decades after he discarded his identity, and that Nazi being alive. The odds that the ones you uncover will be the ones who are still alive is necessarily much smaller than the already unlikely individual events.

Which is not to say that this quest is somehow unnecessary. I believe fervently in bringing Nazis to justice; I'm just not sure that it can be accomplished for much longer. On this, Dr. Zuroff and I are agreed:

In that respect, Nazi-hunting should not be judged purely by the practical statistics of convictions and punishments. In fact, from my experience, it is often the public exposure of their crimes which proves most painful to our targets, because in many cases those most dear to them usually have no idea what "Daddy" or "Grandpa" did during World War II. And the extensive media coverage given to such cases, especially in the suspects' country of residence or the site of their alleged crime, also have invaluable educational importance, not to the mention the fact that legal action is taken by a government, which sends a badly needed message, that the crimes of the Holocaust were so terrible, that the efforts to hold those responsible continue even many decades later.

If we add the facts that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers, that old age does not turn mass murderers into Righteous Among the Nations, and that every victim of the Nazis deserves that an effort be made to find their murderers, I think it should be more understandable why I have not yet retired and why the Wiesenthal Center continues to seek to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net