Canberra Times August 20, 2012
Last week's High Court decision ruling out the extradition of a 91-year-old man to Hungary for alleged war crimes marks, probably, finis to any further efforts to punish World War II Axis war criminals who made their homes in Australia. If it were a book, it would be a remarkably short one if it turned in any way on successes. Australia is alone among western nations, in having failed to convict, denaturalise, deport, expel or extradite a single Nazi war criminal, and our record with Nazi collaborators from subject nations is hardly better. The author of any history of this would struggle to find anything very much for the Australian government to boast about.
This is probably not for sinister reasons - though there has been some who have suggested that military, intelligence and scientific needs of the Western alliance as the Cold War developed led to a degree of blind eye to the employment and nationalisation of people utterly compromised by their active parts in Nazi horrors. But there were other factors too which help explain, if not excuse, what happened. Australia played a leading and creditable role in taking in thousands of people displaced by the war in Europe. The overwhelming majority were, of course, victims of Hitler's horrors, but, we now know, some with plenty on their consciences, merged into this stream. Our immigration and counter-intelligence efforts were focused, not very effectively, at the border rather than on assimilation and citizenship here, and displaced people in particular were told, firmly, that they could make a new life here, and should put behind them their horrors and ''the quarrels'' of the past. Officialdom, in short, was not greatly interested; so far as war crimes were concerned, Australia had been much criticised by our Allies, particularly Britain and the United States, for wanting to maintain the rage against Japan, long after others, for reasons of statecraft such as the Cold War, wanted to forgive and forget. West Germany itself, and some of the former subject nations continued to search out perpetrators, but without obvious zeal, except, occasionally that inspired by embarrassment when representatives of victim groups, particularly Jewish ones, drew attention to those who had escaped justice. That many of the worse crimes had occurred in land now behind the Iron Curtain and under communist control also made Australian co-operation, particularly involving non-Germans accused of war crimes, more difficult; we had no confidence in communist justice, and often suspected the motives of communist searches for emigres accused of collaboration. It was not until a little more than a decade ago that some of this shameful tendency for forgetfulness was shaken by revelations of a sizeable migration of suspects here. That led to the establishment of a special unit under a special prosecutor, Bob Greenwood, but any official enthusiasm for the task soon evaporated once it became clear that witnesses as much as suspects were now elderly, all the evidence hard to find, and lawyers apt to place every obstacle in favour of progress. Mr Greenwood's unit mounted a number of cases and had more on its books when it was ordered, after successive court failures, to stop. Official involvement since has been more fitful, inspired by official requests from nations now well out of the yoke of communism, but hardly more successful.
Some sardonic observers will find a peculiar savage irony in the fact that the High Court, throwing out the most recent case, asserted that the killing of someone because he was a Jew was not a war crime in Hungary at the time of the alleged murder. Hungary declared such a thing a war crime only after conquest by the Allies in 1945. On the same ground, perhaps, the murder of Jews, gypsies or homosexuals by Nazis might not have been a crime under German domestic law, and thus the Australian record excusable. The irony is that it was of the essence of the Nuremberg judgments, and of the ''Far East'' War Crimes trials, that certain actions - genocide for example - were and always had been international crimes against humanity. If it were otherwise, war crimes trials are nothing more than the exercise of power by victors.
There are some who will say that everyone who could have been involved in a World War II war crime must now be so old, and probably senile that we should simply let it all go. That cannot be right: so savage and beyond human power to forgive were Nazi atrocities that the door will be closed only by death or impossibility. That is almost on us. What a pity that this appalling ''chapter'' of history will end without a single Australian strike, since May 1945, at this evil. How even more awful it would be were the same sort of technical arguments to frustrate Australian co-operation with justice over modern breaches of international criminal law - for example in Libya, Afghanistan, or Syria.