In Germany, Whispers of ‘Enough’ at a War-Crimes Trial
MUNICH — The paper next to the courtroom door announced the charge for the day’s hearing in tiny type that hardly seemed equal to its gravity. “Mord,” it read in German. Murder.
DAY IN COURT Josef Scheungraber waits to defend himself against charges that he killed civilians in World War II.Credit...Oliver Lang/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The accused waited with his lawyer, standing unsteadily, gripping a crutch with one arm. Josef Scheungraber, 90, is charged in the deaths of 14 Italian civilians in June 1944, when he was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He is an accused war criminal, called to account more than six decades later.
The crimes against humanity committed under the Nazi regime remain the issue that refuses to go away here, and every time it seems to be sinking out of view it breaks through the surface again. I had just driven from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where I was researching an article about Dr. Aribert Heim, a Nazi doctor who allegedly murdered hundreds of people, most of them Jews, through poison injections directly to the heart and surgery that would better be described as butchery.
My colleagues and I found that Dr. Heim’s flight from justice ended with his death in 1992 in Cairo, where he had lived, hidden from Nazi hunters, as a Muslim convert. He would never face his accusers in court, as Mr. Scheungraber now must.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Scheungraber ordered the shooting of three Italian men and a 74-year-old woman, then ordered that 11 more civilians be forced into a barn, which was blown up. Ten of the 11 died. Mr. Scheungraber has been convicted in absentia in Italy but has testified here that he was rebuilding a nearby bridge when the civilians were killed, and that he had nothing to do with the order to kill civilians as revenge for an attack by Italian partisans.
The trial has played out quietly, largely out of the glare. A war-crimes trial evokes images of packed benches and the strobe of flashbulbs, but on this recent morning fewer than 15 people waited to watch the proceedings. I went not because it was a news story but because I wanted to hear what Germans thought about the continuing process, at a point when some of the accused criminals from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, like Slobodan Milosevic, have already passed away from natural causes.
“We have to remember,” said Manfred Wenzel, 71, resolutely, before wavering and adding, “although I’m not sure these people should be pursued anymore.” He sighed and concluded, “At some point there has to be peace.”
Mr. Wenzel seemed much happier describing a story in keeping with the European Union’s recent reign of open borders, rather than dwelling on the continent’s darkest years. “The son of one of the Italian witnesses actually married a German and they coincidentally live right here in Munich,” Mr. Wenzel said. “He showed no resentment at all.”
I first moved to Germany as a student in 1995, and was amazed to find a country so ready not only to embrace its guilt for long-ago crimes, but to discuss it, research it and commemorate it with unusual diligence. But lately I have noticed a shift. When the Nazi era comes up in interviews, people plead to me with their eyes to let it drop. There are fewer discussions and more awkward silences.
Increasingly, I get the sense that many Germans would like to move on. Not forget, but move on.
“This case gives me a bad feeling,” said Werner Berger, 36, who said he was at the trial because he had studied history but also because he lives in the same small town as Mr. Scheungraber. “It’s always only the Germans who they go after, never the Soviets,” he said. The accused was “not a camp commander, not in the SS,” Mr. Berger said. “What is the point?”
The same prosecutors who are trying Mr. Scheungraber are weighing whether to bring a case again against the accused death camp guard John Demjanjuk, 88, a Ukrainian accused of working as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland. It would be his second trip to the dock. He was convicted and sentenced to death in Israel, only to be freed in 1993 after it turned out that he most likely had been confused with a guard at Treblinka, the camp at issue in that case.
“It’s difficult,” said Hans-Joachim Lutz, the prosecutor of Mr. Scheungraber, in an interview at his office near the courthouse. “There are very few witnesses who are still alive,” he said, “and the people we have were lower in the hierarchy,” which means less documentation of their crimes. It was unclear whether they could make the case against Mr. Demjanjuk. Asked how long before it would be brought, he said some cases took months, others up to five years.
In Ludwigsburg, a city not far from Stuttgart, at the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, Thomas Walther has worked on nothing but the Demjanjuk case since last March. I sat with him in his darkened office later that night, after the office had closed. Tired, with a twitch under one eye, his longish white hair hanging down like a wilted Einstein’s, Mr. Walther rejected the notion that time could excuse the crimes of that era, or reduce their heinousness.
“There was no border of old age for the victims,” Mr. Walther said of Mr. Demjanjuk and his alleged crimes at Sobibor. “His oldest victim was 98. His youngest was 3-and-a-half weeks old. The little ones were handled like cats,” he said, snapping his wrist to indicate the smashing of tiny skulls. The only statute of limitations, as Mr. Walther saw it, was biological. “That is the only way that it will end.”
In the courtroom, Mr. Scheungraber sat and watched Guiseppe Nocentini, 79, testify by video link from Italy. Mr. Nocentini told a story of war of German soldiers confiscating a horse and provisions, of a young man killed after he left his hiding place to find salt for a meal others were cooking, of an exchange of fire with Italian partisans, and then of seeing black smoke rise into the sky after the house was destroyed.
“I couldn’t hear the blast but I saw the smoke,” the courtroom interpreter said. The judge gently told the witness that in a deposition he had said he heard an enormous explosion.
“With the explosion, I’m not certain. With the smoke, I’m certain,” Mr. Nocentini said. “I’m just not entirely sure. It was such a long time ago.”