Bioethics Blogs

Should we punish crimes from the distant past?

Former Auschwitz SS officer Oskar Gröning is currently being tried as an accessory to murder for his role as an administrator in the extermination camp, and the trial has stirred up a lot of debate. One strand of the debate addresses the question whether Gröning was complicit in the extermination of prisoners, and whether he was culpable for this complicity. (Roger Crisp wrote a fascinating post on this a couple of weeks back.) But another strand – and the strand that I want to look at here – has addressed the question whether former Nazi war criminals should be tried and punished for deeds in their distant past. Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor and witness in Gröning’s trial has claimed that he shouldn’t be tried, though he should use his knowledge to help fight holocaust denial.

Let’s suppose that Gröning was indeed a culpable accomplice to murder. Should he then be punished? More generally, should serious crimes from decades go be punished? My intuition is that they should, but reflecting on why I have found it is not straightforward to defend this view.

It is often thought that one of the purposes of criminal punishment is to prevent the offender from re-offending, whether through rehabilitation, incapacitation or what is known as specific deterrence – deterrence of the punished individual. However when the crime was committed decades ago, the prevention of re-offending is unlikely to be a relevant consideration. It is unusual in such cases that the perpetrators retain a disposition to offend, and even if they do, they have often lost the ability to do so due to age and infirmity.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.