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Incredibly detailed VR model of Auschwitz helped convict Nazi war criminal

Virtual reality is an amazing technology. While we don’t claim to know if it’ll succeed in the gaming world outside of a narrow niche, the demos and games we’ve seen have been impressive, particularly when it comes to creating a sense of “being there.” Now, German prosecutors have created an advanced VR simulation of the German concentration camp Auschwitz, in an effort to model exactly where specific Nazi war criminals were and what they saw.

To understand why the prosecutors built this model, it helps to understand how Germany chose to prosecute Nazi war criminals over the past 70 years. From the 1950s to the present day, West Germany (and later reunited Germany) indicted 16,767 individuals as war criminals for their actions during the Holocaust. In the 1950s, however, Germany had decided to prosecute these crimes as murders under the ordinary criminal code. This meant many war criminals were able to skate on the “I was only following orders” defense. Absent specific, direct proof that a given individual had organized and carried out the murders, it was difficult to convict many people.

The Nuremburg trials might have given the impression that the Nazi party was destroyed. But these high-profile cases focused on the worst of the worst. Historians estimate that in 1945, some 10% of the German population had been active in the Nazi party, which meant the civil administration (including judgeships) lay in the hands of the same people who had been complicit in the Nazi regime. No serious, concerted attempt was made to strip these people out of the civil service.

In the last few years, German courts have changed their approach. Rulings have stated it’s no longer required to prove an individual culprit is directly responsible for attacks. Rather, the act of serving at a place like Auschwitz has been treated as being a component of a killing machine — and that the guards themselves knew what was happening and took no action to stop it. The VR model referred to above has been positioned as a vital tool for demonstrating what guards and personnel did and did not see based on records of how the camp functioned and where its work details were, and the positions and stations of the guards and other camp staff. Even the trees within the simulation have been modeled to correspond to records of where they once stood.

“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,” said Jens Rommel, head of Germany’s federal office for the investigation of Nazi war crimes. Creating the model was the work of multiple years, with the forensic team poring over details of Auschwitz gleaned from old records, aerial photos, modern forensic scientists, and the written recollections of survivors. “Because the former crematoriums and other installations had been completely destroyed, we had to remodel them with the help of old construction plans,” 43-year-old Ralf Breker, a forensics software developer told NBC.

With World War II having ended 71 years ago, it might seem like chasing down accused war criminals is a lost cause. But these cases continue to matter a great deal to the Holocaust survivors still remaining and to their descendants. Germany continues to grapple with this particularly ugly chapter in its own past, and bringing former Nazis to trial for the crimes they committed decades ago is still seen as important work.

The other reason for building a model like this may be as insurance if the newer German ruling on prosecutions for involvement with the Nazi regime is overturned. The single individual convicted under that decision died while his case was on appeal, which puts the approach in a bit of legal limbo. This seems to suggest that German prosecutors still have good interest to build the most secure case they can. That way, if the courts return to the older method of conviction, they still have strong cases to make.

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