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How VR Is Helping Convict Nazis In Court

Software engineers used blueprints, old photographs, and visits to reconstruct Auschwitz-Bikernau–and prove that one guard knew what was happening there.

How VR Is Helping Convict Nazis In Court

Nazis. You can either hate them or hate them. Which is why I’m glad to see that German authorities are using every tool possible to hunt them down and convict them before they peacefully die in their beds–including virtual reality. It’s a use for VR that’s relatively unexplored in the tech world, but it’s one of the most compelling.

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Take Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former SS guard at the Auschwitz-Bikernau concentration camp. A new documentary short explains how the prosecution used virtual reality during the trial to put this snake in jail.

Hanning–who joined the Nazi Schutzstaffel paramilitary force when he was 18 years old–served at the camp, where he and his gang systematically tortured and killed 1.1 million people. While he refused to answer questions from his wheelchair during the trial, his lawyers argued that he didn’t personally kill or beat anyone and that he didn’t even see what was going on. The prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that this was not the case. To demonstrate this, they didn’t just use documents and witnesses–they built a virtual reality model. Walking through the VR Auschwitz, jurors saw the places where Hanning met prisoners at the trains as they arrived and escorted them directly into the gas chambers. After experiencing Hanning’s view of the camp in harrowing detail, they found him guilty of accessory to the murder of “at least” 170,000 people.

Software developers at the LKA, Bavaria’s State Criminal Office, built the precise virtual reality model to show exactly how the camp looked under winter and summer conditions. Talking to NBC News, forensics software developer Ralf Breker explained how he and his team used the original blueprints to build the camp “because the former crematoriums and other installations had been completely destroyed.”

According to Breker, his team traveled to the camp in 2013 to study it in person in order to build the model. They also studied photographs to apply precise textures to every building and plot of terrain exactly as it was when the camp was fully operational. Finally, they added trees and vegetation that may have obstructed the view of the guards from their alleged positions. In total, the forensic experts had to reconstruct 155 brick and wooden structures and watchtowers that are still standing in the camp, 300 buildings that are in ruins, plus the gas chambers and the crematoriums, which were all destroyed in January 1945. The entire camp was also surrounded by an eight-mile-long wire fence supported on concrete poles.

The objective of constructing a VR version of the complex in such detail was to eliminate any possibility of a legal defense based on Hanning’s supposed ignorance. The camp was so big, his lawyers attempted to claim, that they couldn’t possibly have known what was going on. Indeed, Auschwitz-Bikernau’s huge size is nothing short of shocking and terrifying. Breker, who is used to gruesome crime scenes, says he was shattered every day when he returned from visiting the camp and seeing the dimensions of the horror that was unleashed in this unholy place only 72 years ago. In fact, the complex was three camps in one: Auschwitz I, the concentration camp opened in June 1940 on the barracks of a Polish Army garrison and occupied mostly by political prisoners; Auschwitz II, the death camp in which more than a million prisoners–mostly Jewish–were killed in gas chambers; and Auschwitz III, a work camp in which prisoners worked in factories that belonged to IG Farben, the pro-Nazi chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate that was later split into four corporations that you may know: Agfa, BASF, Bayer, and Sanofi.

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By experiencing that sprawling complexity in the virtual concentration and death camp in the first person, jurors and forensic experts could precisely see the potential points of view of these guards and determine if Hanning’s defense had any merit (it didn’t).

Now, German authorities want to use the latest version of the VR camp in 30 new cases of suspected Auschwitz criminals. After that, the LKA says, the VR model will be donated to museums and educational organizations so they can educate the population on the atrocities that must never happen again.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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