Will and I were together in his office, discussing his own future, when he stood up from the table, hoisted his trousers by the belt, and announced he would take us out for Käsespätzle. It was a crisp spring day: The dandelions were out. We walked to his favorite cafeteria to find a line of maybe 100 hungry government employees who’d all had the exact same idea. “People like to eat Käsespätzle,” Will observed. He led us to another spot where they were serving brats and vinegary lentils. We sat among uniformed cops. A case against another elderly Nazi had recently fallen apart after months of work, Will admitted to me that day. The accused, 99 years old and a former guard at a camp called Ravensbrück, died right as preliminary legal proceedings were about to begin.
“I thought it could get to trial, but it was not to be,” Will said, with a shake of the head. “I am not absent of emotion. I think to myself, Oh, such a pity. But that doesn’t help. It’s no use.” He agreed with my suggestion; it was perfectly possible that Irmgard Furchner would turn out to be the last ever person tried for Nazi crimes. He hoped not. At the bureau they’d spent time investigating a 97-year-old who guarded the Neuengamme camp. That case was currently with a public prosecutor. There were four other active cases moving slowly toward regional courts, though the accused involved were between 98 and 101 years old and at any moment one or another of them might die and be condemned to the archives, put among the thousands of investigations turned cold.
Will was used to this part of the job, he said. Since the start of his tenure at the bureau he’d experienced the forced severing of many a dangling thread. There was the ex-soldier who wrote Will a letter to protest his innocence, and afterward shot himself with an old service revolver. There were the wanted German émigrés found living in quiet retirement in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and small-town Tennessee, each of whom died before they could be extradited. When I first met Will, I had wondered why on earth he and his colleagues continued to put in so much effort under conditions that were increasingly futile. They were stuck on one of history’s stranger cul-de-sacs, hastening toward a visible dead end that came closer every day. Now I saw that the effort was the point. Their work is a gesture. It is supposed to be noticed by those who would commit war crimes now or in the future. It is a warning to wavering abettors, that a killing can be passive as well as active, brought about by standing guard at a gate or tapping at keys on a typewriter.
The work done in Will’s office is a quiet but noble statement for the record: If you put people in pens, if you help kill their dads or their babies, then someone somewhere will sit in a room one day and sift through a million files to learn your name. The work is a knot in a handkerchief, a bright yellow Post-it on the wall, a smartphone alarm set to tinkle all the fucking time. During the Furchner trial, the late writer Milan Kundera was quoted on “the struggle of memory against forgetting”; in other words, how the bastards only win if we misremember or stop remembering their crimes. In Will’s bureau, they work against the forgetting, they keep alive the struggle.
When the last person of interest to him dies, when every case is archived and cold, Will’s team will disband. Their building may become a museum, he guessed. He was due to be visited by a ministerial aide from the German capital soon, who would help decide next steps. Such decisions were for others, over his head, Will said. He had investigative work still to do. New leads had recently landed on his desk, an unexpected late bounty, something like 2,500 names belonging to people who once received their wages from a savings account connected to the Ravensbrück camp. Some of them, surely, must still be alive.
Tom Lamont, a frequent contributor to GQ, is based in London. His debut novel, Going Home, is forthcoming from Sceptre in the UK.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of GQ with the title “The Race to Catch the Last Nazis”