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How Virtual Reality Is Helping Prosecute Nazi War Criminals

A new, detailed 3D simulation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp is helping prosecutors build stronger cases against these still-living Nazis

(Bavarian State Criminal Investigation Office)
smithsonian.com

Despite decades of hunting down and prosecuting Nazi war criminals, there are plenty still out there. In June, for instance, 94-year-old former SS Guard Reinhold Hanning was convicted of being an accessory to murder for 170,000 people at Auschwitz. But time is running out the find these still-living Nazis, and now prosecutors have turned to a new technology to strengthen their cases: virtual reality.

Andy Eckardt at NBC News reports that staff at the Bavarian State Criminal Investigation Office or Landeskriminalamt (LKA) have made a digital recreation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp that allows users to virtually walk through its 15-mile perimeter. They can climb guard towers and visit barracks to figure out just what someone working at the camp may have avoided, and what was impossible to miss.

“The model can be used in trials to counter the objection of suspects who claim that they did not witness executions or marches to gas chambers from their vantage point,” Jens Rommel, head of Germany's federal agency for investigating Nazi War crimes, tells Eckardt.

The recreation was led by forensic software developer Ralf Breker​ who used detailed construction plans left by the Nazis to reconstruct the camp as it was during the war years, including pieces destroyed by the Allies at the end of the war. His team also traveled to Auschwitz in 2013 to get a better sense of the camp and scanned the remaining fences, barracks and watchtowers.

Combining all that information with aerial photography and thousands of archival photos of the camp, Breker created the harrowing VR simulation, which can show the camp in both summer and winter conditions. The simulation even includes where individual trees stood to show whether they could block a specific view and also includes ghostly images of prisoners marching through the camp.

Eckardt reports that currently German courts are looking at 30 cases of suspected war criminals from Auschwitz as well as three cases from Majdanek camp in occupied Poland and eight from Stutthof which was a camp in the former free city of Danzig, now Gdansk.

The VR helps prosecutors get a sense about whether the suspects are lying about what they knew. “Legally, the question is about intent: must a suspect have known that people were being taken to the gas chambers or shot?” Rommel tells Deborah Cole at the Agence France-Presse.​ “This model is a very good and very modern tool for the investigation because it can help answer that question.”

Cole reports that the model first came about while prosecutors built a case against Johann Breyer, who was accused of being complicit in the killing of more than 200,000 people at Auschwitz. He died in 2014 before he could be extradited from the United States, but the case did spawn a 3D model of the camp. A more advanced model was produced for use during Hanning’s trial. The current version, which is the most sophisticated yet, is now ready for use in future trials.

“The Germans were very precise—we were able to rebuild every single structure because we had blueprints for each one,” Breker tells Cole. “Our team only investigates murders and we’re usually the first at a crime scene so there’s a lot we see that is very unpleasant. But when I got back to the hotel room each night after being at Auschwitz, I was shattered. We spent each day with the head of the archive and he provided us with so many shocking details.”

Once the final trials are over, the LKA says it may lend its model to Holocaust memorials or research collections. Considering the highly sensitive nature of the model though, the office's first priority is to make sure the software doesn’t fall into the hands of people who would use it as propaganda or make video games out of it.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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