Thomas Will’s most recent trip to inspect a Nazi concentration camp took him to Płaszów in Poland, now a wooded rocky site with rusting train tracks and weather-beaten watchtowers still in place. Just before the 63-year-old German arrived, there happened to be a memorial service for the thousands of forced laborers who died at Płaszów, including those stalked for sport by the camp’s commandant, Amon Göth. The villa where Göth once lived still exists. So do offices, jail cells. Visitors guided through on Schindler’s List tours tend to cover the grounds in a few hours before moving on to a quarry where Spielberg filmed exteriors for his famous movie centered on the camp. Will wasn’t so interested in the Hollywood aspect. Instead he lingered at windows, wondering about sight lines. He looked out over undulating land and asked himself, Who witnessed what, who ignored what? He was there not as mourner or as tourist but as investigator. Where others might have seen Płaszów as a place consigned to history, Will saw a crime scene, one that remains active even today.
He is one of the last in a long line of Nazi hunters, the chief of a German bureau created decades ago to investigate historic atrocities and to track down aiders and abettors of the Holocaust—those few that remain. All these years after the collapse of the Third Reich, many of the suspects that Will tries to bring to justice die on him. “After we have found them alive, after we have forwarded their cases to prosecutors…. People die while they are on trial,” he would tell me. “It has become normal in our work. It is our work.”
He met me in an airy private office at his organization’s headquarters in the southern German town of Ludwigsburg. Will has a kind face, thick fingers, thick specs, and a bowl of jet-black hair that covers the upper half of both his ears. One of his predecessors, as chief of this bureau, was said to carry around a pistol on the job. Will is a more relaxed presence, a what-are-you-ordering-for-lunch sort of boss. He wears a silver watch that he often shakes out from under the sleeve of his sport coat, as if to remind himself he’s always on the clock. The sport coat is sometimes burgundy (velvet finish) and sometimes a subtler navy tweed. Will’s own preferred lunch order is Käsespätzle, a dish of baked noodles and cheese they make well in a nearby government cafeteria.
Will occasionally broke off conversation in his office to answer a ringing desk phone with the use of a headset: “Yes? Indeed?” The building in which we sat, tall and whitewashed, was once a women’s prison. Will’s office is on the second floor and is dominated by a large oval conference table; the pale walls are decorated with colorful abstract paintings that Will chose himself. It was not until a few hours of intense conversation had passed between us that I noticed he’d sat me opposite a portrait of a naked man. Will smiled when I got up the courage to mention it. The abstract nude was by a friend, he explained. “A lot of people who come into this office are concentrated on other things,” he told me. “You just stared long enough to see it.” This is how Will approaches his role as bureau chief. He sits and he stares at Germany’s past long enough to see it.
The bureau was founded in 1958, a nationwide investigation agency mandated by the German government to scour the country and the wider world for Nazis. On Will’s necessarily crammed business card, it is named in full as “the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes,” which is somehow even more unwieldy in German. For ease, people call it the bureau or the central office or the unit. Somewhat in the manner of a le Carré spy referring to MI5 as the Circus, Will uses an unexpected English phrase for his place of work—“our house.” He’ll say of some old, regretted decision not to pursue a promising piece of casework: “That was the opinion in our house at the time.” Or: “Shall I give you a tour through our house?”
When I said yes to Will’s offer of a tour, he led me downstairs, passing the offices of a dozen or so of his colleagues, many of them former judges and prosecutors like Will himself. A row of mounted portraits showed his predecessors, including the last but one, a man named Kurt Schrimm, who in the early 2000s oversaw a change of direction at this bureau, reversing a decades-long trend of passivity (letting sleeping Nazis lie) and instead challenging his fellow investigators to think about the complicity and culpability of soldiers and employees at every level of that death-dealing regime. Will was hired under Schrimm in 2003 and has kept up his former boss’s belief in catching and collaring whomever they can while they can. “The next generation will not have a chance to work judicially on this,” he said to me. “It ends in these years, now, in the 2020s. We have the last generation of perpetrators. We are prosecuting the last of the crimes.”
In doing so, Will and his colleagues are heirs to a deep tradition of Nazi chasers, even if they differ—in task and technique—from their more swashbuckling forebears. Back in the 1960s, Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, was tracked to Buenos Aires, where he was living in secret as a married father of four and was known locally as Ricardo. The Mossad agents who found Eichmann drugged, disguised, and then spirited him away for trial in Israel. Later that decade the camp commandant Franz Stangl was traced to a car plant in São Paulo by Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Holocaust survivor turned Nazi tracker. The postwar years produced sensational, daring stories of Nazis being brought to justice. These final years of the hunt are different. Quieter. Weirder. Whatever noble thrills were available to those who ran down Eichmann, Amon Göth, and the other famous ghouls of the camps, these are not thrills that extend to Will, who in cleaning up the last of a mess has been asked to pursue people who may never have considered themselves Nazis at all. The targets Will has in his sights get around with the aid of canes or wheelchairs now. Bids for escape are pretty much off the table—that is, with one startling exception.
We stood together in front of an enormous map—it was the size of a tablecloth—that showed the Third Reich at the height of its power and cruelty. “You see how many camps there were,” Will said.
“Every blue dot?” I asked. These represented some 44,000 concentration camps, extermination camps, subcamps, and other sites of incarceration that were spread around a continental horror zone.
Panels of linoleum squeaked underfoot as we walked deeper into the building, ending up in a locked archive that was furnished wall-to-wall with gray filing cabinets. Will and his team deal mostly in names. They want the names of everyone who worked in or for one of those thousands of Nazi camps on the map. New names turn up all the time, even today, because of the sheer volume of paperwork accumulated under Hitler’s finicky regime. Will told me that he had around a thousand yards of files in his archive he’d yet to read. Other massive tranches of evidence had long ago been dispersed around the world, either by Nazis in flight or by liberating soldiers. Because of this, Will has spent time in dusty archives in Buenos Aires; Washington, DC; London; Ottawa; and Minsk. He took at least a dozen research trips to Moscow before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine brought his open invitation to an end. Will recently visited Jerusalem. When I asked how that went, he said, “I came back with names,” by which he meant it went well.
In the hunt for names, Will and his colleagues read pay slips, sick notes, expense requests, uniform and equipment bills, medals, memorials, roll call records, transfer orders, promotion lists, passenger manifests, and passports. Sometimes they request that foreign governments unseal confidential spy reports. They try to find out which Germans emigrated where after the war and whether those emigrations were suspicious. Having spent so long picking over this evidentiary trail, having read so many documents that richly detailed genocide, Will said he felt mostly unshockable: “I am professionally damaged maybe.” He once flew to Canberra in Australia to pick through old files that were originally from a Nazi extermination camp. He chose a file at random, opened it, and found that it was full of human hair. Will touched his chest, even now a little frightened. “I was not prepared for that.”
But he came back from Australia with names. And from Poland. And from Sweden. Whenever they have a new name, Will and his colleagues—the bureau employs roughly eight investigators at a time—turn from historians into gumshoes. They consult grave-site indexes, trying to work out whether a name they’ve found belongs to someone living or dead. (The vast majority are dead.) They’ll call pension providers, insurance companies, vehicle-registration offices, genealogical firms, the Red Cross, the US Department of Justice, Interpol.
Since the era of Schrimm, the bureau’s reformer in chief, investigators here have sought to define and clarify the scale of the crime that was the Holocaust. The tendency has been toward enlargement of that crime: “Widening the circle,” Will called it, as he shifted about a packet of sugar and an empty espresso cup on his conference table. We were back upstairs in his office. For the purposes of a demo, his cup represented mass murder, and the sugar signified the limits of criminal culpability. He moved the sugar an inch from the cup, then two inches, then three, then four. Where did responsibility for the killings end? Here (one inch) with Hitler and his generals? Here (two inches) with camp commandants, doctors, executioners? Here (three inches) with military functionaries such as guards? Or here (four inches) with non-military functionaries, the secretaries, telephone operators, and so on?
The question is a live and urgent one in Germany because at this point it is really only the functionaries, the guards and secretaries, juvenile Nazis barely out of their teens when the regime collapsed, who may remain alive. Having lived this long, into an era of elevated national regret about the past, they are being fingered to bear what guilt there is that remains.
Recently, for the first time in Germany’s history, a civilian employee of a Nazi camp was brought to trial as an accessory to mass murder. Will was reluctant to speak of this civilian by name, so important did he consider her prosecution to the work of the bureau. “The typist,” he kept calling her, referring to a woman that the rest of Germany knew either as Irmgard Furchner or as die Sekretärin des Bösen, the secretary of evil.
There have been strange trials resulting from probes begun in this bureau (one elderly former guard from the camps had to be pushed into court in a hospital bed), but none so strange as that of Furchner, which was adjudicated last winter. When she worked for the Nazis she was in her teens. When she was indicted as an accessory to mass murder, she was in her 90s; arrangements would have to be made to get her from her nursing home to court in a van that could take a wheelchair.
Her trial was scheduled to start in September 2021. The local courthouse was considered too small for the fuss that Furchner’s hearing was expected to generate, so on the appointed day, observers from around the world made the journey to a temporary courthouse rigged up for the occasion in a warehouse between grazing land for sheep and the No. 23 autobahn out of Hamburg. Representatives of Holocaust survivors were in attendance. Visiting diplomats. Tons of reporters.
The knocked-together courtroom had been transformed for her trial with freshly painted stud walls. It was wired for sound, perhaps to account for Furchner’s hearing difficulties. She would sit obediently in court encased by COVID-deterring plexiglass screens, flanked by a nurse and her attorneys. So went the idea. Early on the trial’s first day, it was obvious something was wrong. Furchner’s table was empty. The judge turned on his microphone and told everyone, “Die Angeklagte ist flüchtig.” The defendant is on the run.
It took a while to piece together what had happened. Very early in the morning, it seemed, before that police van arrived at Furchner’s nursing home to take her to court, she’d left the facility by taxi and traveled to a station on the Hamburg-bound metro. From there she went into Hamburg itself, where city police would have been radioing each other about a fugitive: nonagenarian woman; white hair; uncertain mobility; wanted as an accessory to mass murder.
I was not able to interview Furchner for this story. Her attorney Wolf Molkentin advises her against talking to the media; meanwhile, staff at her nursing home turn away reporters on sight. Had I met Furchner I would have asked her: Why run that day? Molkentin did agree to meet me. He said of Furchner’s flight from justice: “It wasn’t flight, not in the strictest sense. She didn’t want to attend the trial so she went to Hamburg and waited to be arrested. She made a point. It felt more like…. What’s the word? Rebellion is too much. Maybe I can say that her subjectivity was expressed by it.” After Hamburg police found Furchner walking along a street later that day, she was arrested and held for five nights in a cell until Molkentin could argue for her release. It was agreed she would wear a tracking device.
The day that Furchner’s trial resumed, several weeks behind schedule, protesters from a neo-Nazi group appeared outside court to show support. Anti-fascists duly gathered in turn. Inside, the indictment was read to her. Furchner was charged with abetting the murder of 11,387 women, men, and children; in other words, she was being held jointly accountable for the deaths of every person confirmed to have died during her employment at a concentration camp.
The camp in question was a place called Stutthof. Will and I located it on his giant map: a remote blue dot in the northeastern corner of Nazi territory, close to the Baltic Sea and what is now the Polish city of Gdańsk. Neither the largest nor the deadliest of the camps, Stutthof was described by one survivor who’d also lived through Auschwitz as the cruelest. It was built in 1939, and by 1942 it held tens of thousands of captive European Jews. As Will and I stood looking at its location on the map, it was almost 80 years to the day since Furchner first arrived in Stutthof to start her typing job.
This was in 1943—the year that a section of Stutthof’s fence was electrified, the year the grounds were enlarged to accommodate a crematorium. Of the 64,000 people who would ultimately lose their lives in Stutthof, some were tricked to their deaths, ushered aboard a plausible-looking train and then gassed, or ordered to stand still to be measured before they were shot from behind. Most perished from malnourishment or disease in the barracks. Furchner was 18 when she got there. She had already worked in a bank in her home village, nearby, and she could type. A photograph from this period shows a pale young woman wearing a dark dress, smiling as she posed in front of the brick-walled administration building that was now her daily place of work.
Furchner’s job was to take dictation from the camp commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe, a figure who routinely wrote execution orders and arranged killings on-site. Sometimes he dictated memorandums to his employees that combined the terrible and the mundane. There would be a cheerful announcement of someone’s promotion and on the same piece of typed paper (just another bullet point on an agenda) advice about the sorts of wagons that would be needed for a transport of prisoners to Auschwitz.
“It is almost the hardest thing of all to think that these camps were also places of work,” a reporter named Florian Kleist told me. Blond and boyish, in his 40s, Kleist is a reporter who writes for a group of local newspapers around Hamburg. He has made a close study of Furchner in recent years. “The camps were places where people fell in love or got pregnant,” he said. “They were places where people gossiped or were rivals. Normal work issues! And 50 yards beyond the fence, prisoners were freezing, starving, being taken to be gassed.”
When the network of Nazi camps began to disintegrate in the spring of 1945, many of the prisoners left alive in Stutthof were marched west, away from liberation that was coming with Russia’s advancement from the east. Some were drowned in the Baltic in deliberately scuttled ships. According to credible evidence submitted during her trial, Furchner was one of the last employees to abandon Stutthof before its dissolution. She left with her life laid out ahead of her; she left with a marriage prospect, having met an SS officer who also worked in the camp, a man named Heinz. By the mid-1950s the two newlyweds had moved to a northern town in Germany called Schleswig, presumably eager to leave the past behind.
Furchner carried on as an administrative worker, now in a hospital. According to submissions in court, she was said to be an impressively nimble typist, not that her hospital colleagues would ever have believed why. The Furchners lived in a brick apartment building with a balcony. Life marched on for the couple. Heinz died. Furchner retired and in 2014 she moved by herself into a nursing home, choosing a place on the fringes of an already fringe-like village called Quickborn.
I visited the facility one day. It is a modest complex of hedges, iron fences, and yellow-painted bungalows, nestled under a tall gray wall that partially deadens the roar of a nearby highway. I was there with Kleist and we walked around to a rear garden, noticing where the nursing home butted up against the big autobahn wall. The setup made me think of those paranoid gangsters who were said to have sat with their backs to the wall of restaurants so they could see what was coming, fearful of unwanted surprises.
During her years in obscurity, Furchner had sometimes been visited by interrogators from different German justice departments who wanted information about goings-on in Stutthof during the war. Formally questioned in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1980s, Furchner was encouraged to believe she had done nothing criminally wrong herself, an assumption that can only have been furthered by some astonishingly light punishments meted out to her superiors. Hoppe, Stutthof’s commandant, was found in hiding in Switzerland after the war. He was working there as a landscape gardener. Tried in Germany, he was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Hoppe died in the 1970s a free man. He had casually, briskly, by memo, condemned thousands to their deaths. By ghoulish cosmic accident, Hoppe was himself brought to trial at a time of incomprehensible leniency. The postwar decades produced some stirring tales of Nazis being hunted, hanged, imprisoned. (Eichmann in Argentina. Stangl in Brazil.) But these were also decades of timid sentences, scarcely believable foot-dragging, an “Aren’t we finished?” attitude in Germany that seemed to express a widely held desire to be done with the past.
With quiet, damning understatement, Will described all this to me as “the nonwork of former generations.” But he admitted that even while he regretted the investigative and judicial complacency of his forebears, he understood it a little. “That was another society. It was partly a guilty society,” he said, shrugging. Then, about 20 years ago, the bureau patiently started enlarging the aperture of Holocaust guilt, persuading regional courts to prosecute smaller and smaller pieces of the Nazi killing machine, emboldened by each successful prosecution to go further. Now guards, now accountants, now typists.
The investigation into Irmgard Furchner and her time at Stutthof began at the bureau in 2016. They had her name on file because she had testified decades earlier at the trial of the commandant, Hoppe. Next they had to persuade a prosecutor’s office to formally indict her, which occurred by 2017. That’s when two uniformed cops and a prosecutor showed up at the nursing home and found Furchner in a bed in her room, watching television. There were talk shows on Germany’s main terrestrial channels that morning as well as dubbed reruns of Mike & Molly and The Big Bang Theory. While the cops searched her possessions, the prosecutor informed Furchner she would face trial. According to later testimony, she replied by saying that it was lächerlich—ridiculous—and afterward wrote a letter to her trial judge, informing him she’d not be attending the trial, in order to spare herself “this embarrassment.”
After Furchner no-showed at her first court date and spent five nights in a cell, the trial got properly underway in the autumn of 2021. Apart from her occasional muttered complaints about malfunctioning audio equipment, some yeses and nos as the judge inquired after her health and her ability to continue, Furchner was rarely heard over the 14 months of the trial. Instead, her attorney Wolf Molkentin spoke on her behalf. Molkentin argued that a young woman of the Third Reich would have been shielded from the purpose of Stutthof by her male superiors, men who we know liked to flatter themselves as sophisticates because they spoke of “special treatment” (never gassings) and “evacuations” (never death marches).
At one point, Molkentin quoted one of the most warped thinkers of the 20th century, Heinrich Himmler, on the subject of Nazi euphemism. He told me he never expected to find himself advocating for an accused Nazi criminal, let alone quoting Himmler out loud. When he was contacted by a regional public prosecutors office and asked if he would defend Furchner, Molkentin said to himself, Not me. Out of the question. Soon he started to worry what sort of attorney might say yes if attorneys like him said no. Molkentin was especially disturbed by the prospect of what he called “some rightist lawyer” using the trial as a stage from which to amplify who-knew-what, conspiracy theory, anti-history, Holocaust denial. When he agreed to take Furchner as a client, he privately set himself certain constraints of behavior, promising himself that he would insist on exacting legal standards at every turn: to make the trial matter, to history-proof it.
Molkentin took frequent walks in the woods during the trial, “trying not to think too much,” he told me. He made no secret that he was an admirer of Will’s work at the Ludwigsburg bureau, adding that he felt Germany to be uniquely suited to a role as a standard-bearer against nationalism and warmongering around the world. “I have always had the notion that it is a merit or an advantage of the German people that we can object to certain tendencies because of our history…. In Germany we can say that we know where it all leads.”
Because of his defense of Furchner, he has received a lot of hate mail. “Letters up to here,” he told me, raising his hand to shoulder height. “There was a message from an American Jewish woman who said I was sadistic, I was murdering the victims a second time. How could I live with it? How could I sleep?” The question of sleep came up often during Furchner’s trial. As prosecuting lawyers sought to lay out the full squalid horror of Stutthof, they invited survivors to testify. People spoke of their fear, the hunger, barking dogs, outbreaks of typhus in the filthy barracks that were the result of a willed neglect almost as lethal as a bullet or a pellet of Zyklon B gas.
Josef Salomonovic was six when he arrived by cattle car. His father was murdered in the camp infirmary: injected in the heart with poison. Salomonovic told the court he still had nightmares about this. Another child of the camp, Halina Strnad, spoke about watching a pregnant inmate die in labor. The baby was stillborn. Somehow it fell to Strnad to dispose of the body, which she tried to do in the camp latrines. Strnad told the court she still had nightmares.
Salomonovic testified against Furchner in person, carrying onto the stand a photograph of his murdered father. As for Strnad, she addressed the court by video link from her Australian home. One of the main points in Furchner’s defense was that she was ignorant of any actual killings in the camp. “I can’t imagine how it was possible not to know what was happening,” Strnad countered. “There was a constant stench of burned corpses.” Not long after speaking these words to the court, Strnad died at the age of 92. She did not live long enough to hear the verdict that was reached in December 2022, when Furchner was found guilty on almost all of the 11,387 counts, pending appeal.
Will and I were riding north through Germany by train, to the university town of Mainz. He had been invited there to address a group of journalism students about his investigative techniques. He wore navy tweed for the occasion. His black leather satchel matched his shoes. We had to ourselves one of those closed-door compartments that make journeys by European rail so seductive. Something about the privacy of the carriage encouraged Will to open up about his life. He talked about his children (two doctors and a lawyer) and his soccer team, the low-flying Nürnberg, based in Nuremberg where Will spent some of his youth. When I asked how it affected him, being a young man in that city made infamous by its Nazi rallies and then renowned again as the site of the Allied trials, where members of the regime’s high command met justice at the gallows, Will said: “For me the history was always present. Fascinating, not in an admiring way but in a way that made me want to understand what happened and why it happened. That was one of the emotions and ideas behind coming to Ludwigsburg.”
Most investigators who land in the Ludwigsburg bureau are there on reassignment from other jobs in the judiciary. They stay for two or three years, working as elderly-Nazi detectives before returning to their former careers. Those I spoke to about their reasons for applying to work in Will’s bureau tended to express a sort of bruised wonderment at Germany’s dark past and a desire to understand it better, from the front lines or what remained of them. When Will came he vacated a judge’s chair in Dessau. He never went back.
Instead he spent his first years at the bureau digging into war crimes that were committed by Germans in Italy. Italy became Will’s turf. He tried to solve the murder of some of Albert Einstein’s relatives, killed by Nazi troops in a Florentine villa in 1944. He looked into the case of an undercover SS agent who was said to have infiltrated and betrayed a group of Italian partisans. While in Italy, he sat in on the trial of a German ex-soldier accused of executing Italian civilians. “I got into a conversation with an elderly lady who told me that members of her family had been shot and killed during these events,” Will recalled. “She only survived herself because she lay under corpses.” During a break in the trial, this lady told Will she didn’t mind so much if the accused man was convicted or not, nor if he spent time in prison. The lady told Will she just wanted history “brought to a lawful, legitimate end.” He never forgot that, a lawful, legitimate end.
Our train to Mainz moved slowly through a forest. Later it stopped near an asparagus field. We seemed to be running behind schedule, and when an announcement by the conductor confirmed this, Will looked at his wristwatch and tutted. He checked what time he was supposed to be speaking to the students. “You do what you can,” he said to nobody in particular, “and sometimes you are too late.” It might have been a motto for his midlife’s work as a detective. If trials could be an antidote to atrocity, if they could be an ointment that would relieve societal pain, why had it taken the German state so long to hold its aging Nazis to account? The question was the first thing asked of Will when he got to Mainz.
The waiting students leaned forward at their desks, questioning Will with impressive talent. He rose to the occasion, giving candid answers where he could. He was asked about those targets of his investigations, Furchner included, who were found guilty of Holocaust crimes but who later appealed their convictions. “Do they appeal because they claim they didn’t do it?” somebody asked. “Or do they appeal because they are convinced that what they did back then was right? Do people ever sit there and admit, ‘I really fucked up’?”
Will could not think of a single example of anybody admitting they really fucked up. Instead he described what sounded like a tendency toward denial, especially among the elderly accused who were in their 80s or 90s by the time they were brought before a judge. It could “shake [their] whole worldview,” Will explained, to find out that standards had changed, that their low-level participation in the running of a camp had become a high-level crime, something monstrous. The German historian Simone Erpel once interviewed ex-guards of concentration camps and later made the interesting observation that, while these guards could remember the names of dogs on-site (Rex, Kastor, Satan), they couldn’t remember the name of a single prisoner. According to court testimony, Irmgard Furchner once claimed not to remember any of the documents she’d typed up for the camp commandant. Maybe some orders for gardening supplies.
One of the students in Mainz—I’ll call her Sabrina—asked a perceptive question of Will. Did people ever find out what their own living relatives had done during the war and then inform the Ludwigsburg bureau?
“It happens,” Will said.
Perhaps we were all thinking of our grandparents in that moment. I was. I was thinking how just before I left home in England to fly to Germany and meet these people, my 95-year-old Jewish grandmother had asked me: “Will you be safe?” Even as I disagreed with the premise of her question, even as I reassured her that the era of Hitler and the Nazis was long over, that the average German was no more anti-Jew than she was, I could recognize where her anxiety came from. Germany’s fascist era was brief, maybe a dozen years from spark to immolation. But the tail of that era is long and barbed; it reaches out to swipe at people today. In my immediate family there are children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims. The subject comes up over dinner. We sometimes discuss it at picnics.
After Will’s seminar was over, he walked away from the university with some of the faculty and students to get something to eat. I fell into step with Sabrina, who reminisced about her own grandmother, a teenager during the 1930s, always hungry. She came close to joining the Hitler Youth for the meals, Sabrina said. In the end she became a nurse and that became her story. It might have been a different one.
It was on that same trip to Mainz that I asked Will to think about a counterfactual. On the train I’d asked him, what if he’d been born a few decades earlier? What if Hitler’s army had conscripted him and sent him to work in a camp such as Stutthof? Would he have gone? Would he have stayed?
“I don’t know,” Will answered. He looked out of the window at the scenery.
There are many people in Germany who feel that marginal abettors of the Nazi regime, elderly accessories like Furchner, ought to be left alone. What choice did they have at the time? Wouldn’t they only have been murdered themselves if they refused to take part? Will and others have pointed out that it was only prisoners in the camps who risked execution if they refused duties that kept these sites functional. The vast majority of camp guards, as many as 95 percent, according to historian Stefan Hördler, had an option to volunteer for combat service instead. Meanwhile, female employees of the camps were always designated as civilians, which means they could have chosen to work somewhere else, Hördler has said. When Furchner was interrogated in her nursing home in 2017, she said: “I was called and I had to go.” If she was told at the time her employment in Stutthof was mandatory, she was lied to. Having arrived there, having stayed there, she was expressing a choice, Will believed.
“I think it makes a difference if you were sent to a camp and you stayed,” he said on the train outside Mainz. He turned his attention away from the window. When he was a judge in Dessau, he told me, every type of person passed through his court. Killers. Crooks. There was a man accused of raping a pony. That trial hinged on video evidence. “Not a wonderful film for me to watch,” Will said. “Human beings, we have everything in us. During the war, when a new guard was sent to work in a camp, they might tend to find it strange at first. Many of them were friendly to the prisoners. Then, after a little while, they were brutal. Your surroundings change you. Your colleagues change you. Friendly, harmless people become capable of killing. Isn’t that fascinating? That it can happen to normal people, as normal as you or me?”
While reporting on the Furchner trial, Florian Kleist had brought along his eldest daughter to watch some of the proceedings. Kleist wanted her to understand a little better her country and, indeed, her species. The Furchner case upturned his thinking about the Holocaust, Kleist told me, finally making sense of the number of people the Nazis were able to murder in a mere 12 years in power. “This genocide wasn’t efficient because of the crazy people at the top,” he said. “It was efficient because every day, thousands of Germans like Frau Furchner showed up at an office and did their jobs. This is why they got so far. This genocide. It was so…so ordinary.” He hoped her case would lay a new inscription on the past: that ordinary people did this too. He hoped it would send a different sort of message to the future: that ordinary people could do this too.
Will and I were together in his office, discussing his own future, when he stood up from the table, hoisted his trousers by the belt, and announced he would take us out for Käsespätzle. It was a crisp spring day: The dandelions were out. We walked to his favorite cafeteria to find a line of maybe 100 hungry government employees who’d all had the exact same idea. “People like to eat Käsespätzle,” Will observed. He led us to another spot where they were serving brats and vinegary lentils. We sat among uniformed cops. A case against another elderly Nazi had recently fallen apart after months of work, Will admitted to me that day. The accused, 99 years old and a former guard at a camp called Ravensbrück, died right as preliminary legal proceedings were about to begin.
“I thought it could get to trial, but it was not to be,” Will said, with a shake of the head. “I am not absent of emotion. I think to myself, Oh, such a pity. But that doesn’t help. It’s no use.” He agreed with my suggestion; it was perfectly possible that Irmgard Furchner would turn out to be the last ever person tried for Nazi crimes. He hoped not. At the bureau they’d spent time investigating a 97-year-old who guarded the Neuengamme camp. That case was currently with a public prosecutor. There were four other active cases moving slowly toward regional courts, though the accused involved were between 98 and 101 years old and at any moment one or another of them might die and be condemned to the archives, put among the thousands of investigations turned cold.
Will was used to this part of the job, he said. Since the start of his tenure at the bureau he’d experienced the forced severing of many a dangling thread. There was the ex-soldier who wrote Will a letter to protest his innocence, and afterward shot himself with an old service revolver. There were the wanted German émigrés found living in quiet retirement in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and small-town Tennessee, each of whom died before they could be extradited. When I first met Will, I had wondered why on earth he and his colleagues continued to put in so much effort under conditions that were increasingly futile. They were stuck on one of history’s stranger cul-de-sacs, hastening toward a visible dead end that came closer every day. Now I saw that the effort was the point. Their work is a gesture. It is supposed to be noticed by those who would commit war crimes now or in the future. It is a warning to wavering abettors, that a killing can be passive as well as active, brought about by standing guard at a gate or tapping at keys on a typewriter.
The work done in Will’s office is a quiet but noble statement for the record: If you put people in pens, if you help kill their dads or their babies, then someone somewhere will sit in a room one day and sift through a million files to learn your name. The work is a knot in a handkerchief, a bright yellow Post-it on the wall, a smartphone alarm set to tinkle all the fucking time. During the Furchner trial, the late writer Milan Kundera was quoted on “the struggle of memory against forgetting”; in other words, how the bastards only win if we misremember or stop remembering their crimes. In Will’s bureau, they work against the forgetting, they keep alive the struggle.
When the last person of interest to him dies, when every case is archived and cold, Will’s team will disband. Their building may become a museum, he guessed. He was due to be visited by a ministerial aide from the German capital soon, who would help decide next steps. Such decisions were for others, over his head, Will said. He had investigative work still to do. New leads had recently landed on his desk, an unexpected late bounty, something like 2,500 names belonging to people who once received their wages from a savings account connected to the Ravensbrück camp. Some of them, surely, must still be alive.
Tom Lamont, a frequent contributor to GQ, is based in London. His debut novel, Going Home, is forthcoming from Sceptre in the UK.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of GQ with the title “The Race to Catch the Last Nazis”