Since 1958, a small department of Germany’s government has sought to bring members of the Third Reich to trial. A handful of prosecutors are still tracking down Nazis, but the world’s biggest cold-case investigation will soon be shut down.
The Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes is an austere, pale-yellow prison building nestled into the 18th-century city wall of Ludwigsburg in southwestern Germany. Once used by the Nazis to detain political prisoners, the building announces its contemporary tenants obliquely, with a small, silver sign. Entering the Central Office still feels like entering a jail; to gain access, one must pass through a white metal gate and then through a second secure doorway.
Since it was created by the West German government in 1958, the Central Office’s mission has been to deliver Nazis to justice. Every year, its six investigative “departments,” each of which consists of a single prosecutor, scour the globe looking for members of the Third Reich. Chief prosecutor Jens Rommel, who heads the operation, is a sturdy, jovial 44-year-old with frameless glasses and a triangular goatee. The German press calls him a Nazi hunter, but Rommel doesn’t like the term. “A hunter is looking for a trophy,” he told me. “He has a rifle in his hand. I’m a prosecutor looking for murderers and I have criminal code in my hand.”