Virtual Reality Can Help Convict Nazi War Criminals

By Jeremy Hsu | December 14, 2017 12:04 am
A scene from the short documentary film "Nazi VR" that tells of how a virtual recreation of Auschwitz helped convict a Nazi war criminal. Credit: MEL Films

A scene from the short documentary film “Nazi VR” that tells of how a virtual recreation of Auschwitz helped convict a Nazi war criminal. Credit: MEL Films

During World War II, Reinhold Hanning served as a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp where more than 1.1 million people were killed by Nazi Germany. More than 70 years later, a virtual recreation of Auschwitz helped German prosecutors convict Hanning of being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people. Now a new documentary film explores how the virtual model of Auschwitz can be viewed through virtual reality headsets in future court cases involving the last surviving Nazi war criminals.

The virtual reality version of Auschwitz has not yet been used in a trial. But a judge specifically referenced how a 3D computer model version helped the court to understand the viewpoint Hanning would have seen from standing in one of the concentration camp’s watchtowers. A new short documentary film by LA-based online magazine MEL Films and director David Freid explores that specific court case and the possible uses of virtual reality in future war crimes trials.

“We’ve only just begun with what virtual reality can accomplish in the courtroom,” says David Scheffer, a professor of law at Northwestern University and former U.S. war crimes ambassador from 1997-2001, during a voiceover in the film.

The virtual Auschwitz was created with the help of Ralf Breker, a forensic VR engineer working in Munich, Germany. He and his colleagues typically use their laser scanning technology to create virtual versions of crime scenes where investigators can walk around and work inside the virtual version without disturbing the real crime scene.

For recreating Auschwitz, Breker and his colleagues spent five days doing laser scanning at the site of the former concentration camp in May 2015, according to BBC News. Rediscovered blueprints of the camp and computer modeling helped reconstruct many of the buildings that have already been torn down. The resulting virtual model of Auschwitz provided one part of the prosecution’s case along with a dozen elderly Auschwitz survivors.

Hanning was convicted by a German court in June 2016. The former SS guard appealed his conviction before beginning to serve his five-year prison sentence, but died at the age of 95 this past summer.

In one sense, the virtual recreation of Auschwitz represents an educational tool and history lesson from one of the most sobering chapters in modern history. But it could also clearly serve as a type of forensics technology for criminal investigators and prosecutors. If virtual reality eventually gets its day in court, that could represent a new twist on a rising technology that has most commonly been used for entertainment and job training.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
  • OWilson

    For 4 years, some 15 years ago, I co-managed an ESL school for high school students in Poland.

    At the end of 6 weeks of classes, our hosts provided us with a bus and a one week cultural tour for the two dozen or so student teachers we alwas brought with us from the U.K.

    As well as the salt mines, castles, palaces and old towns, our last stop was an obligatory tour of the concentration camp at Ocswecyn (Auschwitz).

    On my 4th tour I found I could not take the sickening museum pieces, endless piles of shoes, human skin lampshades, and pictures of the victims anymore. so I quietly left the group and wandered off on my own. I expected to be herded back, but I was left to wander.

    I walked to the famous iron gate beside the watch tower that I had seen in so many movies, books and newsreels, The words, “Work will set you free” in wrought iron greeted the prisoners and their families. The ovens, the bullet pockmarked wall.

    That experience, and growing up in Europe generally, made me aware of what the State can do in the name of it’s people, if given enough power, and never questioned!

    The Big Lie is still alive and well today, in the Middle East, North Korea, Iran, Africa, S America and Cuba.

    Be skeptical, and be vigilante!

    • FluffyGhostKitten

      CNN? They’re not the ones defending Nazis. That’s Fox.

      • OWilson

        The bad guys are the ones who want to overthrow duly elected Presidents.

        They always know better than the voter!

        Trust them! Lol.

        They are impatient.

        Elections are always too slow for them!

        • FluffyGhostKitten

          ‘Duly elected’ is rather debatable when the ‘winner’ lost the popular vote. So saying that they think they know better than the voters doesn’t really apply when the voters didn’t vote for the ‘duly elected’ candidate.

          • OWilson

            The rules are the rules, laid down by the Founding Fathers collectively.

            Without enforcing those rules of law there would be rioting, looting, cop car burning and neighborhood Mom and Pop store ransacking!

            Oh, wait………. :)

            How many times do you uncivilized stone age barbarians on the Left have to be told that if you don’t like the rule of law, change them, democratically.

            Ah, this liberal education!

            Look what it has wrought!

          • FluffyGhostKitten

            We don’t kill people based on the color of their skin. That would be you lot. Methinks you are projecting a bit.

          • OWilson

            You are not well!


          • John C

            Get off it. She lost. Her electoral strategy wasn’t as good as Trump’s. He won the election legally, but now the losers who can’t accept that have been waging a banana republic coup since the day after he won, CNN cheering the mob along.

          • FluffyGhostKitten

            I know that. He won, but he didn’t win the popular vote.

      • John C

        You are a moron.

        • FluffyGhostKitten

          The fact that you think I’m a moron for attacking Fox makes me wonder about your IQ.

    • Uncle Al

      Never forget, never forgive, never again – shoot back.

      Social Marxism is forever seductive. All it delivers is poverty, suffering, gulags, and purges.. Ask oil-wealthy Venezuela how things are going. Ask “Breadbasket of Africa” Zimbabwe about famine. Ask Obamantion and Nancy Pelosi about US Inner Cities.

      Ask Israel about nuclear retaliation. Only a select fraction 1940s’ Jews lived to breed. Some got educated, none of it tuition-free.

      • FluffyGhostKitten

        I don’t know why you’re complaining about Marxists. Marxism is an extreme left-wing ideology. This article was about Fascism, which is an extreme right-wing ideology. Of course, I’m trying to reason with someone who blames a man for problems that existed before he was born, so maybe using logic won’t work.

        • Uncle Al

          Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei National Socialist German Workers Party.

          • FluffyGhostKitten

            You poor fool. They called themselves that to get the real Socialists to support them, and then started killing them once they got in power. And Stalin was not a Socialist. Socialists, Communists, and Marxists are not the same thing. Of course, I can’t expect someone who takes a eight-decade-old lie to be fact to know the difference between them. To put it simply: Socialists want you to pay more taxes when you buy stuff. Communists want your stuff to belong to the state. Marxists want your stuff to belong to the state, and will shoot you if you object.

          • OWilson

            Ah, this liberal education! :)

            You poor uneducated fool!

            Don’t you know that on the Clock Face of political philosophy, 6 o’clock is where the moderates meet, and midnight is where the totalitarians meet

            Hitler, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Franco, Pol Pot, Castro, Saddam, Ayatollahs, and the assorted Kim Il Sungs. :)

            There IS no difference!

            Only followers of one, or other, of these dictators, will protest there’s a difference!

            THAT’s only how educated folks can actually tell them apart! :)

          • FluffyGhostKitten

            They’re all dictators, but there’s right-wing dictators and left-wing dictators. The fact that I understand logic better than you makes me think that I’m not the uneducated one.

          • OWilson

            Enjoy your logic!


          • Mike Richardson

            You read this guy perfectly!

            Ol’Wilson’s never been one to let facts or logic interfere with his arguments. It’s a sad thing to watch, really.

  • Dennis Spirgen

    OWilson’s reaction to Auschwitz is exactly why virtual reality tours of grisly crime scenes should not be used in the courtroom. Every trial lawyer understands the power of the “reptile brain,” that portion of the brain that deals with emotion. By manipulating this reptile brain with imagery, the lawyer convinces the jury to decide based on their emotions (help that poor injured child!), largely ignoring the facts. This makes the jury feel good, but it is not justice.


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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