Authorities in Germany have created the world’s grimmest virtual reality programme – one designed to help prosecutre the last surviving Nazi war criminals employed in the Third Reich’s death-camp gulag.
The 3D version of Auschwitz is stunningly realistic and meant to give the person who views it the feeling that they are actually in the complex in Nazi occupied Poland where at least 1.1 million people were murdered.
It was developed by technicians at the Bavarian State Criminal Office. No attention to detail is spared when it is viewed: the crematoria smoke, victims are herded into gas chambers and people are executed by firing squad and on the gallows.
‘It has often been the case that suspects say they worked at Auschwitz but didn’ t really know what was going on,’ said Jens Rommel, head of the federal office that investigates Nazi war criminals.
‘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.’
Digital imaging expert Ralf Breker, who works for the Bavarian crime authorities, designed the simulation which brings to life the worst place on earth.
‘To my knowledge, there is no more exact model of Auschwitz,’ Breker, 43, said.
‘It is much, much more precise than Google Earth. We use the most modern VR goggles on the market. When I zoom in, I can see the smallest detail.’
Had he still been alive the programme would have first been used on Johann ‘John’ Breyer from Philadelphia whose extradition to Germany to answer charges of aiding in mass murder was granted by a judge in July 2014.
Breyer was accused of complicity in the killing of 216,000 Hungarian Jews at the camp. He – and judges, prosecutors and lawyers – would have worn the goggles taking them through the Auschwitz complex. But he died before he could answer for his alleged crimes.
‘We have seen nothing, we could see nothing has been a stadard defence of many SS guards in previous klegal processes,’ says Gerd Schäfer, a leading prosecutor. ‘This virtual reality tour takes them right back to the camp as it actually was.’
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.
This year an upgraded model of the type that would have been used in the case of Breyer was roadtested at the trial 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 now investigating a few dozen suspects, of whom he estimates a ‘double-digit number’ are still alive and could potentially face trial.
Breker used a great amount of archival photos to create the programme, but also visited the Auschwitz memorial site.
‘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,’ he said.
The killings in the summer of 1944, when nearly 440,000 Jews from Hungary were gassed in a three month period, put such a strain on the crematoria that the chimneys cracked and the bodies had to be burned on railway sleeper pyres outside.
‘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. And we show all this. This is what it was really like.’