A German court on Tuesday acquitted a former SS member of participating in a massacre in France during World War II, in another blow to the German prosecution’s 11th-hour effort to prosecute Nazi crimes.
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In recent months, dozens of elderly former Nazis have been indicted, but the cases have repeatedly collapsed in court.
In this case, a Cologne court found insufficient evidence of Werner C.’s involvement in the massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane, even though his membership in the SS and his service in that particular village were proven (in keeping with German legal rules, the defendant was identified only by his last initial). The fact of his presence in the village wasn’t enough on its own to prove his participation in the killings, the court said.
On June 10, 1944, the SS massacred 642 civilians in Oradour-sur-Glane as a reprisal for a French resistance operation. Men, women and children were rounded up into a central square and shot or burned alive. Werner C., today 89, was a 19-year-old member of the Waffen SS at the time.
In January, he was charged with shooting some 25 people and abetting the murder of many others, based in part on evidence found in the files of the Stasi, the former East German secret police. He admitted being present in the village at the time, but denied participating in the massacre and even claimed he had helped some people escape.
Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Israeli office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he found the court’s decision “very surprising, because it’s hard for me to believe an indictment would have been filed without solid evidence. I very much hope that there are grounds for appealing, that an appeal will be filed and that he’ll be convicted.”
The prosecution has one week to decide whether to appeal.
Despite Zuroff’s surprise, however, this isn’t the first case over the past year in which a German court has freed former Nazis, either because it found them unfit to stand trial or because it found insufficient evidence to convict them.
In January, for instance, a court acquitted Siert Bruins on charges of killing a Dutch resistance fighter during the war due to lack of evidence. A month earlier, in December 2013, it freed former SS member Hans Lipschis, who had served at the Auschwitz death camp, on the grounds that he was unfit to stand trial due to illness.
Since 1958, Germany has had a special agency devoted to investigating Nazi crimes, currently headed by Kurt Schrimm. In 2011, the agency had a modest success, when a Munich court convicted John Demjanjuk of abetting mass murder in the Sobibor death camp, where he was a guard. Although he died while his conviction was still under appeal and therefore never served his sentence, the trial set a precedent that encouraged German prosecutors to go after other elderly Nazis.
The precedent set in that case was that a person could be convicted of abetting mass murder even without evidence of his direct involvement, if it could be proven that he was serving in a relevant position at the time and place where the murder occurred. Based on this, Schrimm’s agency drew up a list of dozens of elderly former Nazis that it hoped could be prosecuted before they died, even almost 70 years after World War II ended.
Last year, the agency announced that the list included some 50 people who had served as guards at Auschwitz. This year, another 20 or so names were added, of people who had worked at the Majdanek death camp. In some of these cases, the agency found enough evidence that it passed the files onto prosecutors so indictments could be prepared.
Nevertheless, the hope that a long line of elderly Nazis would soon be parading into German courts and jails was quickly dispelled. Lengthy judicial proceedings, German bureaucracy, along with difficulties in finding evidence and the suspects’ poor health have made it difficult to indict and convict them. “Gathering the evidence is difficult,” Schrimm admitted last summer in an interview with the German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung. “We have very little material; the documents aren’t optimal.”