Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian-born architect who lost most of his family in the holocaust and dedicated his life after the war to hunting down and prosecuting high ranking Nazis. Prior to his death in 2005, Wiesenthal was credited with the capture of, among many others, Adolf Eichmann and Franz Murer (known by some as the “Butcher of Wilno”), and his story, that of a survivor turned tireless hero, has gained a higher profile as the remaining targets of his mission continue to age while evading justice.
In addition to his storied accomplishments, his career has led to the rise of a term with sweeping implications for the nuances involved in enforcing international law. “Weisenthalitis” refers to a sudden and convenient illness, often manifesting as dementia, which can be used as a legal device to protect aging war criminals from extradition, prosecution, or incarceration. Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, head Nazi Hunter of the Simon Weisenthal Center, sometimes lends his name to this disease and its questionable medical foundations, and has spent many years of his career in pursuit of one of the most heinous war criminals on record. An SS lieutenant named Gherard Sommer, now 95, lives peacefully in a nursing home in Germany and tops the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted Nazi criminals. But while he would otherwise face charges for the brutal murders of over 342 men, women and children in Italy—where he’s been found guilty in absentia—the German government has found him unfit to serve trial, and unlikely to face extradition and imprisonment in Italy.
Sommer’s case is not uncommon, and while a surprising number of Nazi war criminals remain alive and actively pursued by those who hope to hold them accountable (over 87 Nazis were tried and convicted between 2001 and 2011, and the annual number has actually increased since then), Weisenthalitis (or Zuroffitis) has reliably helped others evade justice.
The disease is fake, but the implications are real and they may be significant over the long term. Even after the last WWII era war criminal dies—in or out of prison—the precedents set by their trials and prosecutions will live on. Will the natural process of aging become a rhetorical device used to protect the perpetrators of crimes against humanity? And how will this tool evolve over the years as lifespans increase and violators of international law seek refuge beyond the reach of justice? Time will tell. Reach out to JA to learn more about this tactic and the methods prosecutors use to counter it.