Virtual reality helps Germany catch last Nazi war criminals

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Lack of knowledge no longer an excuse as precise 3D model of Auschwitz, showing gas chambers and crematoria, helps address atrocities

German prosecutors and police have developed 3D technology to help them catch the last living Nazi war criminals with a highly precise model of Auschwitz.

The virtual reality death camp offers 21st-century fact-finding technology for the final Holocaust trials, in a twilight bid by the German justice system to address the atrocities committed seven decades ago.

“It has often been the case that suspects say they worked at Auschwitz but didn’t really know what was going on,” Jens Rommel, head of the federal office investigating Nazi war crimes said.

“Legally, the question is about intent: must a suspect have known that people were being taken to the gas chambers or shot? This model is a very good and very modern tool for the investigation because it can help answer that question.”

Created by Bavarian state crime office digital imaging expert Ralf Breker, the model brings to life in astonishing detail the notorious Nazi-run camp in occupied Poland where more than 1.1 million people died during the second world war.

“To my knowledge, there is no more exact model of Auschwitz,” Breker, 43, said.

“It is much, much more precise than Google Earth,” he said. “We use the most modern VR goggles on the market. When I zoom in, I can see the smallest detail.”

Wearing the headset, prosecutors, judges and co-plaintiffs can have the chilling experience of moving about 1940s-era Auschwitz at will.

Even the trees stand where they once were, to determine whether they could have blocked the view from a certain vantage point.

“The advantage the model offers is that I get a better overview of the camp and can recreate the perspective of a suspect, for example in a watchtower,” Breker said.

The case that gave rise to the project was that ofJohann Breyer, a Czech-born retired machinist accused of complicity in the killing of 216,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz.

Prosecutors put the case together with the help of an early version of the 3D model.

But the 89-year-old American died in June 2014, just hours before a US court approved his extradition to stand trial.

This year, a more advanced model was used in the case of former SS guard Reinhold Hanning, who was convicted in June of complicity in 170,000 murders at Auschwitz and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

Rommel, 44, said his team is investigating a few dozen suspects, of whom he estimates a “double-digit number” are still alive and could potentially face court.

To make his computer-generated recreation of hell on earth, Breker used materials from the Warsaw surveyor’s office and more than a thousand period photographs.

Then he travelled to Auschwitz twice in 2013 to fill in the gaps.

“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,” said Breker, a seven-year veteran of the force.

“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.”

Breker recounted the story of the campaign between May and July 1944 when 438,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The sheer volume of people gassed and cremated every day created such intense heat that it cracked the chimneys, leading the SS to burn bodies on pyres outside the crematoria.

“The SS men then actually built drains for the fat to collect from the bodies, which could be used to fuel the fire for the next round of corpses,” Breker said.

“There are truly no words for it,” he whispered. “Unbelievable.”

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