Virtual reality helps prosecutors catch last Nazi war criminals

German authorities have created a detailed virtual-reality recreation of Auschwitz, in a bid to help catch surviving Nazi war criminals.

Virtual reality helps prosecutors catch last Nazi war criminals

Developed by the Bavarian state crime office for the final Holocaust trials, the virtual replica is being used by prosecutors to gain a better sense of place and point of view. One of the central issues with testimony from the Holocaust is checking the validity of what people could or could not see from where they were positioned.

“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 investigating Nazi war crimes. “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 with the Bavarian state crime office, Ralf Breker, led the creation of the VR replica. He built the environment to be an extremely detailed facsimile of the Nazi-run death camp, even down to the exact locations of trees that may or may not have obscured certain vantage points.

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

Using a VR headset, those involved in the trial can immerse themselves in an accurate reproduction of 1940s Auschwitz, with the intention being that they gain a better sense of what a suspect could see from where they claim to have been at the time. To create the model, Breker used more than a thousand period photographs, as well as material from the Warsaw surveyor’s office and firsthand investigations of current-day Auschwitz.

“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 project first came into being following the case of Johann Breyer, a retired machinist who was accused of being complicit in the killing of more than 200,000 Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz. An early version of the 3D model was used to help build against him, but Breyer died awaiting extradition to Germany.

This year an updated virtual model was used to help convict former SS guard Reinhold Hanning, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for complicity in the killing of 170,000 people in Auschwitz. Since then, Rommel has set to investigating a “double-digit number” of surviving suspects with the help of the VR environment.

Virtual reality is increasingly used to replicate crime scenes, and its ability to give prosecutors, jury and judges a greater understanding of place and perspective is growing into a staple for criminal investigations. The idea is that a VR scene made using 360-degree film can, compared to traditional video, give a more objective representation of a suspect’s vantage point. These 3D replicas also let authorities duplicate conditions that may have been tampered or destroyed.

Immersive technology is also being used to preserve the testimony of Holocaust survivors. A collaboration between the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies and the USC’s Shoah Foundation has led to the creation of interactive recordings of survivors – able to answer questions in real-time.  

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