Catching One Nazi Became His Life
When McKay Smith went looking for his grandfather, he found demons. Some of them his own.
As a lawyer in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, McKay Smith oversees many of America’s most-highly classified intelligence programs. In the debate over government surveillance, people often ask, “Who’s watching the watchers?” Smith is. That’s his job.
But on his own time, Smith has been hunting for ex-Nazis who may have taken part in some of the most heinous war crimes in World War II. While the U.S. government has spent years tracking down former German soldiers and concentration camp guards, Smith has never officially participated in those efforts. Rather, he has spent the past four years, and $15,000 of his own money, accumulating an archive of more than 10,000 pages of official documents and photographs, many of which he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and had been classified for years after the war. Smith reads historical documents the way most people read the newspaper or a book—in bed at night, on the couch on weekends, on the treadmill at the gym. He says he hasn’t read a book purely for pleasure in years.
It’s an obsession that began by accident. Four years ago, Smith, who is 36, started researching WWII-era military records looking for information about his grandfather, Lt. Raymond Murphy, who served on a B-17 bomber and died in 1970, before Smith was born. Digging through old Army files, Smith found a copy of a once-classified “escape and evasion” report, in which Murphy described in harrowing detail the shoot down of his B-17 bomber over Avord, France, on April 28, 1944. Murphy managed to bail out and spent the next four months behind enemy lines before making his way to England.
Buried in the margin of the typed report, Smith found two sentences handwritten in pencil, barely legible so many decades later: “About three weeks ago, I saw a town within four hours bicycle ride up the Gerbeau farm where some 500 men, women, and children had been murdered by the Germans. I saw one baby who had been crucified.”
Something shifted inside Smith’s mind after he read those lines. The image of the baby on the cross was seared into his imagination. He investigated further and determined that his grandfather had seen the aftermath of a notorious massacre in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. And, Smith learned, one former Nazi soldier who'd been there, and had never been tried for a war crime, was still alive.
Werner Christukat, who’s now 90 years old and living in Cologne, Germany, was 19 when he was assigned as a machine gunner to a regiment of the Waffen—SS, the militarized wing of the Nazi party and Hitler’s elite combat troops. On Saturday, June 10, 1944, four days after the Allies landed at Normandy, Christukat’s unit was on orders to proceed toward the advancing onslaught of American forces when it stopped in Oradour, about 300 miles south of the Normandy coast. There, in a scene of depravity that was horrific even for the age of the Holocaust, Christukat’s unit murdered 642 men, women, and children. It was the single largest mass killing of French civilians during the German occupation. Only six people survived. The men razed the village, leaving nothing but a ruined shell, which still stands today in the exact condition the Nazis left it. The French call Oradour a “ghost village.”
Justice never came to the murderers. After the war, 20 former German soldiers were found guilty in the killings, but they were all set free. Only one served a significant prison sentence, an officer convicted in 1983, but he was released 14 years later and lived for another decade.
Christukat was questioned about the Oradour massacre in 1978, but German prosecutors concluded they didn’t have enough evidence to bring a murder charge against him. The case seemed closed. But three decades later, investigators found documents about German atrocities on French villages in the archives of the Stasi, the former East German secret police force, which had never been turned over to war crimes officials. In January 2013, German investigators opened an inquiry into the massacre at Oradour, armed with the newly discovered evidence. And later that year, they formally charged Christukat with murder and accessory to murder.
But their case was tenuous. Of the 40,000 documents that German investigators have compiled on the killings, Christukat is mentioned only once, on a Waffen—SS roster as having been present that day in the village—a fact that he doesn’t deny. But “this mere presence cannot legally be considered as assisting in murder without the presentation of additional proof,” the district court in Cologne said in a statement in December 2014, finding there was “insufficient evidence” to take the case to trial. The state attorney appealed that decision to a regional court, which would decide whether Christukat should publicly face his alleged crimes or live out the rest of his life as a free man.
"I think it's clear that any soldier in that village on June 10 has blood on his hands,” Smith told me last spring, as the court was considering Christukat’s case. Smith argued that even 71 years later, Christukat should still be held accountable “merely for being SS and being present in the village.”
Smith said that under German law, there is generally no distinction between the men who killed French innocents at Oradour and those who stood by, doing nothing to stop them. “They should be regarded as a complicit piece of a larger killing machine.” Others have been found guilty on the same rationale, Smith noted, including John Demjanjuk, a retired Ukrainian-American auto worker, who was convicted in Germany in 2011 as an accessory to murder for his time as a guard at an extermination camp in Poland. And right now, Oskar Groening, a 93-year-old former accountant at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, is also on trial in Germany for accessory to murder, even though he has never been accused of killing anyone himself.
“I think the same standard should be applied to Christukat,” Smith said. Christukat, whom French and German investigators believe is one of about half a dozen still-living soldiers who were at Oradour but were never tried, has said publicly that he never fired a shot that day. Smith doesn’t care. He subscribes to a theory of “collective guilt” for Christukat and the men from his unit.
“I want to see him take his dying breath in prison,” Smith told me.
There are no direct witnesses to Christukat’s alleged crimes. But there is one man who Smith hoped might be able to shed new light on the Oradour case, and whose testimony was nearly lost to the ages: his grandfather, Ray Murphy. A few years after Smith found his grandfather's escape and evasion report, he and his wife welcomed their first child, a baby girl. When Smith sees her smile, he sometimes imagines the crucified child. He dreams about what his grandfather saw. And when Smith thinks on the savagery visited upon the child and the other 641 victims in that helpless village, he becomes rageful.
I’ve been meeting and corresponding with Smith, on his own time and not in his official capacity, for the past 13 months. He stands six-foot-five and is built like a linebacker, with a youthful, almost innocent-looking face that can’t hide the shock and outrage he feels with each new discovery of some atrocity. He shared with me the bulk of his many thousands of pages on the Oradour killings. Smith is convinced that his grandfather’s account is the only documented testimony by an American serviceman of the massacre. And he thinks that Murphy’s statement, along with a cache of U.S. military and intelligence reports that Smith has found and that were never used in a criminal trial, can help prove Christukat's guilt, as well as a pattern of abuse by his unit and other German soldiers.
What began as a treasure hunt, looking for tokens of his grandfather’s war service, has become a blood feud: Smith vs. Christukat. On behalf of the people of Oradour, Murphy—and one dead baby.
Why Christukat’s regiment chose to destroy Oradour is still a mystery. Some historians believe that the Germans were exacting retribution on the townspeople, whom they accused of harboring members of the French resistance who had taken a Waffen—SS officer prisoner. But Christukat’s regiment also conducted a brutal assault on the village of Tulle just one day earlier, and the historical record that Smith unearthed is filled with accounts of other Nazi units inflicting the same atrocities in other French villages as Christukat’s regiment did at Oradour. In some of those towns, civilians were found strapped to wood planks, their arms spread out, as if they’d been crucified. This suggests that if the baby Murphy saw was at Oradour, the crucifixion was part of a systematic campaign of terror directed at French civilians, and not a unique event, Smith said.
On June 10, 1944, soldiers from Christukat’s regiment encircled Oradour in a ring. Christukat, a machine gunner, was among the soldiers standing guard at the edge of the town; they were instructed to shoot any citizens who tried to escape and to direct passers-by towards the town center. Much of the moment-by-moment account of that day has been pieced together over the years through eyewitness testimony from a handful of survivors, as well as from soldiers who committed atrocities and were later put on trial.
With the town surrounded by what one Oradour historian called an “execution perimeter,” the unit’s commander headed for the town center. He “pretended the citizens had a weapons cache in the village despite the denial of the mayor,” according to one report that Smith found from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and that relied on original witness accounts. Other soldiers moved through the village with deliberate precision: up the main street, then back down to the center. Men, women, and children were rounded up and told to report to the fairgrounds, presumably to check their identity documents.
Smith contends that even men like Christukat, who were stationed on the perimeter, could have had no doubt about what the Germans had in store for Oradour. It’s a point of view that many historians back. “A roundup began, directed systematically toward the fairgrounds, starting with the ring of sentinels and going from the village's edge toward the center,” according to Oradour historian Jean-Jacques Fouché, who was the founding director of the “memory center” at the village and whose historians consider among the definitive accounts.
Once the bulk of the townspeople were gathered at the fairground, Christukat’s unit separated the men and lined them up, in groups of 20, inside nearby barns and sheds. There, German machine gunners opened fire, aiming for their legs. The men fell like cut wheat. Those who didn’t die from the gunshot wounds or bleed to death were killed when the soldiers set fire to the buildings. One gunner was spotted chewing on a lump of sugar, which he’d apparently stolen from a town store, as he waited for a batch of men to be brought before him.
“After the massacre came the women and children's turn for whom the Germans had prepared a more refined torture,” according to an article in the French underground newspaper, Les Cahiers Francais, published by a band of resistance fighters. Approximately 250 women and 200 children were packed into the church, which normally sat at most 300 parishioners. “They took them to the church where some of the little boys and girls were to take their First Communion the next day. There, the SS amused themselves by abusing their victims and profaning the altar; then, after laying down a large crate in the middle of the nave, they left.” The crate contained a bomb.
The soldiers locked the doors to the church, triggered the device, and then threw grenades at the building, along with more explosives. The church was engulfed in flames.
The lone survivor recalled a number of sounds after the explosion. First, the screaming, as women clamored up the walls of the church and tried to force their way out the window. Then gunfire, as the soldiers shot at anyone who tried to free herself from the burning building. More than 60 of the children were less than six years old and must have been too small to climb. They huddled together near the altar or retreated into their mothers’ arms. Some of the children were in baby carriages.
In one of the barns, two men who’d managed to hide under their friends’ bodies after they were mowed down by a machine gun heard something new and wholly unexpected: Music. The guards had turned on a radio as they sauntered through Oradour, dousing homes and buildings with fuel before setting them alight. The two men escaped after soldiers set fire to the barn. They are still alive.
The soldiers flushed villagers from hiding places behind clumps of ivy and then shot them as they ran for their lives. One soldier was heard singing. Another played an accordion. Christukat’s unit apparently enjoyed working with accompaniment: At Tulle, the soldiers allegedly had played a waltz over their tank radios as they hung 99 civilians from lampposts.
House by house, person by person, the Germans destroyed Oradour. “The sound of these massacres [were] heard as far as Limoges,” a village about 15 miles away, according to one report from a French witness that Smith found in the OSS files. The violence turned from systematic to purely savage. One German soldier, investigators later alleged, snatched up a child, pulled him into the town bakery, and tossed him into the oven, burning him alive.
The Germans stayed two days in Oradour, tearing the town down, drinking, eating, and singing. When they finally left, nearly every resident of the village was dead, plus a few unlucky neighbors who happened to be riding through Oradour on bicycles when the Germans moved in.
Word of the sacking spread fast. The day after the Germans left, the French witness who said that the sounds of the massacre could be heard from Limoges hooked up with a regional prefect and traveled to the village. “In each house,” he later wrote, “total emptiness, without even a trace of apparent fire, probably because of the nature of the firebombs which employed a large amount of heat. At the entrance of the village a large intact Christ extended his merciful arms.”
The killings at Oradour were part of a German “crescendo of violence,” Smith said, as the Allies moved towards Paris in the summer of 1944. In addition to the murders at Oradour and Tulle, a German army unit attacked the village of Saint-Amand-Montrond. Smith also discovered that this unit captured an airman from his grandfather’s B-17 crew, Herbert Campbell, who’d been fighting with that French resistance group that published the underground newspaper. The Germans beat Campbell with rifle butts, shoved a bayonet through his cheeks, and gouged out his eyes before stomping his head into small pieces.
After the Germans left, emergency workers and clergy came to Oradour to identify the bodies, which proved exceptionally difficult since so many people had been burned, and to look for survivors. Some victims were found strewn about the town “in houses, wells, meadows, and hedges,” Fouché recalled.
The fact that bodies were found throughout Oradour—and not just in the center of town and out of sight from the perimeter, where Christukat was stationed—strongly suggests to Smith that even the men who were physically removed from the worst of the killings saw some people killed, or fired shots themselves. Furthermore, the scale of the killing, and the fact that the ransacking and razing of the village went on for two days, afforded ample opportunity for even a man who never fired a shot to either object or try to flee and report what he’d seen, Smith argued.
To him, any German soldier who was in Oradour that day and didn’t speak up is as guilty as the man who threw the child into the oven. And amid such blatant cruelty, he said, why should anyone be surprised that a German soldier grabbed a child, held him down, and nailed him to a cross?
It turns out that Smith isn’t the first U.S. government lawyer to go looking for evidence of war crimes at Oradour. In the course of his research, he discovered that photographs and eyewitness testimony about the massacre were being compiled by Melvin Purvis, who was a lawyer and intelligence officer with the Army’s Judge Advocate General and ran the U.S. war crimes office that helped to indict men tried at Nuremberg. Purvis was one of the most famous outlaw-trackers in the FBI, having hunted down Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger in the 1930s. He captured more fugitives than any agent in the history of the bureau.
Smith also discovered that Purvis was corresponding with James B. Donovan, who served as general counsel of the OSS. Donovan is probably most famous for negotiating the return of downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.
What Smith found in the archives of his long-dead government colleagues speaks to a breed of violence that can only be defined as sadism, and that U.S. officials hoped to prosecute seven decades ago. Purvis and Donovan were exchanging photographs and letters regarding Oradour. Their correspondence has apparently gone unrecognized until now. But, Smith told me, “It seems clear from the archival documents that these two men (and their respective organizations) were attempting to gather evidence for trial.” The massacre at Oradour had been in U.S. attorneys’ sites for seven decades.
The thousands of pages of documents that Smith has spent years compiling, and that he’s had less time and space for in his home since his daughter was born late last year, show vivid details of depravity, suffering, and a quest for justice that still hasn’t been concluded.
But here’s what they don’t show: Evidence that Werner Christukat killed anyone at Oradour. To this day, Christukat maintains that he never fired a shot. In fact, he claims to have shooed away two women who were approaching the execution perimeter around the village, saving them from near-certain death. Christukat also claims he tried to send away a boy who was about to walk his bicycle through the village, but that a squad leader belittled Christukat for showing compassion to a French civilian and sent the young soldier away.
Still, German prosecutors thought they had a case. Three days before Christmas, 2013, Christukat found an indictment sitting in his mailbox, charging him with participating in the murders of 25 people and being an accessory to or abetting hundreds of others. The indictment accused him of helping the extermination “either by taking on blockading duties” or by carrying “flammable material into the church.”
By the time he was formally charged for the crimes at Oradour, Christukat was a snowy-haired and wrinkled widower with two grown children and several grandchildren. He is not a slight man, but his back is slumped and he moves around with a walker. He has maintained his innocence for years. But in various interviews, with investigators and German journalists, his story has changed, and revealed a number of inconsistencies in his account of what happened on June 10, 1944.
For instance, in the 1978 interview with investigators, he mentioned saving two French women, but he never spoke about the boy. Prosecutors contend that while one woman did escape from Oradour, she couldn’t have been one of the two women Christukat claims to have saved. Christukat also initially denied to investigators that he was at a farm where his unit had shot an old woman, but he later said that he was there and didn’t witness the crime.
And Christukat wasn’t stationed solely on the perimeter during the raid on Oradour. At some point, he went into the center of town and was near the church, he says. But, again, he insists that he never fired a shot.
In 2013, investigators went to Christukat’s home with photos, sketches, and a PowerPoint presentation that reconstructed where the now ruined buildings had stood. Point by point they went through Christukat’s story and poked holes in it—he couldn’t have been on this street when he claimed he was; he couldn’t have seen explosives inside the church from the door, because you can’t see the altar from the door; he had to have gone inside.
Rainer Pohlen, Christukat’s lawyer, told me that his client has had difficulty piecing together the exact narrative of the events all these years later. But he insisted that Christukat was horrified by what happened at Oradour, and has confessed to him, “I didn’t do anything about this big crime. I didn’t have the courage to shoot the officers.” Insofar as he stood by while his fellow soldiers destroyed the village and nearly everyone in it, Christukat said he feels “guilty,” Pohlen told me. But he maintains that having never fired his weapon at anyone, he is absolved of murder charges.
In a 2014 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Christukat seemed exasperated by the lingering accusations and his own failing memory. "If my name is on the list [of German soldiers at Oradour], then there must be something to it," he said. "If they say so, then it must have been the case."
“Not a night goes by in which I don't think of Oradour,” he continued. “In front of me, I can still see the church through the treetops. I hear a bang and then the screaming of women and children. ... I can't get it out of my mind. I felt so dreadfully sorry for them. But the worst is that I couldn't save the boy."
Smith is buying none of this.
“Christukat's claims are absurd,” Smith told me. “[He] says he saved a child, yet almost all children were in school that day and only one managed to escape—Roger Godfrin. Moreover, while Roger was escaping he was shot at multiple times and even left for dead by a sentry outside the village.”
“We need to get past the problem that there are no direct witnesses to Christukat's actions,” Smith said. “This SS unit did their best to make sure there were no living witnesses, and it’s clear that even the patrols on the outskirts of the village executed those who were trying to escape.” What’s more, Smith argued, Christukat admits to being near the church that day. Why didn’t he do more to stop his fellow soldiers from locking the women and children inside and incinerating them?
If Christukat claims to hear the women’s cries at night and see the church in flames, it’s all for show, Smith said.
“Christukat's statements are clearly made in an effort to save his own life. He is a coward. It would be betraying the dead to let an executioner like this go free.”
In the time I’ve known Smith, it’s his doggedness that I’ve come to admire most about him. It’s also the quality that I find the most unsettling.
Smith is a tenacious, scrupulous lawyer. His commitment to the people of Oradour and to finding some resolution for their case has profoundly moved me. No one appointed him to this task. No one is paying him for it. Had I lost a grandparent at Oradour, I’d want Smith on the case. In his official capacity overseeing intelligence operations—a subject, I hasten to add, that he hasn’t discussed with me—I imagine that he is every bit the eagle-eyed do-gooder that I see hunting down aging war criminals. This is exactly the kind of person Americans should want keeping tabs on a secretive surveillance monolith. As a journalist, I am inspired by his assiduous record-keeping and relentless research.
Indeed, relentlessness is manifest in everything he does. The hours upon hours of reading often-blurry photocopies; the late nights spent cataloging, archiving, and cross-referencing old documents; the hundreds of emails he has sent me containing obscure, once-classified government reports that he had pried loose from archives.
I also see his ferocious determination in the lengthy text messages he sends me, many of them late at night, filled with contempt for Christukat after Smith found some new scrap of evidence in a file that he thought put another mark on the board against the ex-soldier. For months, Smith has imagined what he wants to say about Christukat in this story. He has told me how good it will feel to publicly condemn Christukat as “a monster,” a word he has used several times in our correspondence.
Were the crimes at Oradour monstrous? Undoubtedly. But does that make Christukat a monster? Smith is sure it does. But by setting the stakes so high, he may have been setting himself up for a profound disappointment, because even if Christukat were eventually tried, it would be as a juvenile, since he was 19 at the time of the massacre. His lawyer told me that while Christukat could be sent to prison for a decade, he thought it was more likely that a court would hand down a sentence of probation. The final verdict could be an anti-climax to what Smith called that “crescendo of violence.”
This past Father’s Day, Smith’s first as a new dad, he learned that the German court had issued its ruling in Christukat’s case.
While Christukat had admitted being at Oradour on June 10, 1944, prosecutors had produced no tangible evidence linking him to the killings, the court said. To take the case to trial, the prosecutors had to show “at least the probability” that Christukat had “concrete involvement in murder or complicity to murder.” And they couldn’t meet that standard, the court ruled.
The German prosecutor, Andreas Brendel, declined to officially close the case, which means that if some new evidence comes to light, Christukat could still be tried. But the chances were “relatively unlikely,” he told reporters in Germany, because investigators think they’ve found all there is to know about Oradour and Christukat’s actions.
Of course, these investigators never talked to Smith. I’d imagined he might book a plane ticket for Cologne to drop his dossier on the prosecutor’s desk. But, though dispirited, he accepted the decision.
“As a lawyer, I've been taught to respect a final appeal,” Smith told me the day after he heard the news. “I also know that investigative findings are only worthwhile if they can effectuate change. So, the court’s ruling has been very difficult for me.”
Maybe Smith is being too lawyerly. If there’s such a thing as collective guilt, then surely there’s power in the collective recognition of a crime--and the role that Christukat played in this one. Through his research, Smith has already succeeded in holding Christukat to account for what he did, and failed to do, on that day in Oradour. And though he will probably live out the rest of his life in freedom, Smith will never let him go.
Several times, I have wondered whether by fixating on this one man, Smith is trying to fill a void left by another—his grandfather, Ray Murphy. Smith went looking for clues about Murphy’s life to fill the gaps in his own. Smith’s parents divorced when he was young. His family became a collection of fragments, rather than a cohesive whole. Smith’s search for the missing pieces of Murphy’s life has forced him to confront uncomfortable truths: That his grandfather the war hero was unfaithful to his wife, who then took her young son and left with no notice; that Murphy remarried and had a new family; that he never saw his son, Smith’s father, again.
"I started all this with the hope that these documents would enable me to understand my grandfather as a person,” Smith told me. “I've always wanted to know what kind of man he was. And to ease some of the pain my father felt from never having known him. It's hard for me to comprehend the horrible details I found in these files. They took me down a road I never imagined. I feel like I have an obligation to make right a horrible wrong."
Smith’s journey through ancient records and dark family secrets has also brought him some unexpected joy. He found out that he has an uncle, Michael, the son from Murphy’s second family. Smith reunited Michael with Smith’s own father, and the two brothers attended Smith’s wedding. Michael read a prayer for the departed before the ceremony. And Smith tracked down the last surviving member of his grandfather’s air crew, Clement Dowler, who had been living for years in West Virginia, just a day’s drive away from Smith’s home outside Washington, DC. Smith adopted “Clem” as a surrogate grandfather. He and his wife, Jennifer, were at the French embassy in Washington last December when the consul general presented Clem with his country’s highest distinction, the Legion of Honor, for bravery in WWII, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Allies’ liberation of France.
But when Smith went looking for his grandfather, he also found ghosts. And demons. Some of them his own. That baby on the cross became a white hot north star that led him to Christukat. Not because he found any concrete evidence directly tying the old man to that horrible crime, but because Christukat is one of the last living remnants of that vicious day in June 1944. To Smith, his freedom is a lingering injustice. And it is injustice that seems to anger him the most.
Of all the things Christukat has said in his defense, one of his claims has incensed Smith more than any other: That he tried to save that young boy who was walking his bicycle through the village. “I think there is a far better chance that the boy he said he helped is that poor child my grandfather saw nailed to the cross.”
I think Smith believes that’s true. It would provide the perfect ending to his own journey. Smith standing witness for his dead grandfather, and the dead child, against the monster. And finally sending him away.