Searching for Justice: An SS Soldier and the Massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane – Part 1

Published on Spiegel Online Inernational, by Beate Lakotta, March 20, 2014 (Photo Gallery).

Werner Christukat, 89, has been indicted for participating in the 1944 massacre perpetrated by the SS in Oradour-sur-Glane. He says he wasn’t directly involved. Seventy years after the fact, there are more questions than answers, and proof is elusive.

“There was this boy,” says Werner Christukat. “He came walking over the hill. A small blond boy with a bicycle and he wanted to go past me and into the village. I can still picture it exactly. I stopped him and wanted to chase him away, but then the junior squad leader came up and started yelling at me…” … //

… An Indictment in the Mailbox: … //

… Recognizing Historical Responsibility:

  • Photo albums, diaries, letters from back then — they found nothing usable. Plus: children and grandchildren who are shocked by the investigation, a talkative old man with no feeling of culpability. The usual, Brendel says.
  • Brendel is 51, prefers suits, has a high forehead and wears black-framed, architect-glasses. Willms is three years older, wears a full beard and jeans and has a head full of unkempt, graying curls. Both have been hunting Nazis for almost 20 years. Brendel ascended to his current position three years ago.
  • For decades, the West German judiciary did little to bring Nazi perpetrators to justice. Charges for Third Reich-era crimes were brought against some 15,000 people, only 7,000 were convicted. Often, penalties were mild or those accused were acquitted.
  • Today, though, Germany wants to prove that it recognizes its historical responsibility and investigators are now searching the globe for the erstwhile murderers: in Russia, Belarus, South America. But it is a bit late. The war criminals are dying out.
  • Brendel has led over 100 different investigations. He led the prosecution team against four or five of them. One died just days before the trial was to begin; the files were already in the courtroom.
  • There is no lack of political support for the investigations these days; the problem is more of a physical nature. Willms compares it with a puzzle: “It would have been complete in 1945. But now, a piece goes missing every day because another one dies.” Most of the men they are currently pursuing use walkers. But if they aren’t yet suffering from dementia, they can still be prosecuted. Still, few of those who gave the orders to kill remain — and for a long time, German courts allowed those to walk who had merely been following orders. That is how the law was interpreted.
  • Brendel says he always thought that was misguided. But nevertheless, his office would likely be closed down by now if it weren’t for the verdict handed down in the case of John Demjanjuk three years ago. He was a guard at the Sobibór death camp and the court found him guilty even though it was impossible to prove that he himself had committed a specific crime. It proved sufficient that he was a cog in the machinery. Because Demjanjuk died before the Federal Court of Justice could examine the verdict, it remains unclear whether the Demjanjuk case opened a new legal chapter in the prosecution of Nazi-era crimes. But it certainly improved the outlook of the Nazi hunters.

Too Late?

  • In Baden-Württemberg recently, four elderly men were temporarily locked up in pre-trial detention, suspected of having been guards at Auschwitz. Following seven months of detention, the court elected not to pursue the case of one 94-year-old because he is suffering from dementia. Relatives of the victims have appealed the decision.
  • The Dutch criminal law expert Frits Rüter, head of an Amsterdam-based project researching justice and Nazi-era crimes, has accused Germany’s Nazi hunters of activism. He says that the German judiciary initially failed in its obligation and refrained from pursuing perpetrators who were just cogs in the Nazi machinery. Now, only aged men are left and punishing them helps nobody, he says. It is too late, he adds.
  • Brendel thinks that is nonsense. But why? “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” he says. “We owe it to the victims.”
  • In 1953, a court in Bordeaux handed down tough penalties to SS members involved in the Oradour massacre, but none of the convicts had to stay in prison for long. In 1983, an East Berlin court sentenced a senior SS officer to life in prison, but he was let out in 1997. In West Germany, all investigations were abandoned.
  • Following the Demjanjuk verdict, Willms visited the Stasi archive in Berlin and searched through old East German court files. He stumbled across an old company list. Brendel believes it reflects the company membership at the time of the massacre. But who created it? When? Why? Nobody knows.
  • In early 2013, Brendel and Willms walked through the charred remains of Oradour with one of the last survivors of the massacre. They came as representatives of Germany’s toothless judiciary. But they had the list in their pocket — a list which included eight men who were still alive. Christukat is one of them.
  • Brendel believes that it would be a novelty if he were able to try Christukat in court. Rather than being an Auschwitz guard, Christukat was part of a combat unit. Their mission: Push the Allies out of Normandy and fight the partisans. Furthermore, Christukat was only 19 at the time of the massacre, meaning the war crimes trial would have to be held in the juvenile division of a criminal court.

(full text).

Part 2: ‘My Father Never Would Have Shot‘;

Part 3: Searching for Compassion.

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