There Should Be No Statute of Limitations on Prosecuting War Crimes

In 1944, the Nazis slaughtered the 642 residents of Oradour-sur-Glane in France. Now the trial of an accused perpetrator has prompted the tired argument that it’s time to forget.

It was a conflict during which acts of barbarism were so frequent, so wanton and public, that, 70 years later, the events at Oradour-sur-Glane rarely provoke recognition. It didn’t rival Nanking, it wasn’t a charnel house like Belsen, nor was it a waypoint on a death march. But in 1944, just a handful of days after the D-Day invasion began the dismantling of Nazi Europe, this tiny hamlet in central France was the scene of an especially ghastly mass killing. In two days of savagery, the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” slaughtered nearly everyone in the town. A third of the victims were children. The youngest was a week old. Only six people survived.

Thuggish fascists never needed an excuse for murder, of course, but members of the unit later claimed that the mass killing was merely a retributive reaction to the kidnapping by French maquisards of Waffen SS Major Helmut Kämpfe, whom they believed was being held in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres. When SS panzers rolled into Oradour-sur-Glane—close enough in their calculations—the town’s inhabitants were roused from their homes, separated by gender, and murdered.

With a typical Nazi sense of proportionality, the Germans slaughtered—by bullet, explosive charge, grenade, smoke, and fire—642 innocents. All the men were shot, their bodies set alight—often before they expired. But a far worse fate awaited the women and children, who were herded into a nearby church and locked inside. Those who managed to squeeze through windows and unlocked doors were shot. The rest were consumed by fire when members of the Waffen SS set the building alight and, for good measure, tossed grenades inside and raked the building with machine gun fire.

Burning humans alive, packed into barns or churches, and razing entire towns was something of a German specialty during the Second World War. In 1945, an SS unit murdered over 1,000 prisoners in the town of Gardelegen by locking them into a barn and setting it on fire. (The man responsible for ordering the mass burning, Gerhard Thiele, lived out his days in West Germany and never saw the inside of a jail cell). After the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the razor-jawed SS sadist who lorded over German-occupied Czechoslovakia, the Nazis wreaked their revenge by eliminating the town of Lidice—the entire town—and killing 1,300 people in the process.

A month after Oradour-sur-Glane was wiped from the map, The Times of London called the massacre “a worse Lidice," “one of the great crimes of the war,” “one of the foulest—if not the foulest—committed by the enemy in Occupied Europe.” This was an optimistic assessment—Auschwitz was six months from liberation—for the soil of Europe, of Russia, and other countries that had been absorbed into Hitler’s reich was soaked in blood (the Nazis were being quite literal when incanting that sinister phrase blut und boden—blood and soil). In an accompanying editorial, the Times assured readers that “those who ordered and those who carried out the massacre of Oradour” would not “escape the penalty of their crime.”

Oh, but they would. The man who ordered the destruction of Oradour, Brigadier General Heinz Lammerding, avoided the dock: West Germany refused to extradite him to France. When a group of suspects living in communist East Germany were sought by France, the officially “anti-fascist” dictatorship also refused extradition requests. During the French trial, a handful of perpetrators were given flimsy sentences, while two Germans condemned to death were later pardoned.

But now German prosecutors, mining information from East German secret police files, have assembled a case against former Waffen-SS soldier Werner C. (German privacy laws protect the accused’s identity), an 88 year old from Cologne who acknowledges being present in Oradour-sur-Glane on that grim day, but claims to not have participated in the orgiastic violence.

As word of Werner C’s arrest filtered through the media, 92-year-old Siert Bruins, a Dutch-born member of the SS once known by the delightful nickname “the Beast of Appingedam,” walked out of a German courthouse a free man when a judge declared the evidence too patchy. In 1949, Bruins was sentenced, in absentia, to death by a Dutch court for the murder of Dutch resistance hero Aldert Klaas Dijkema. Though he was born in Holland, Bruins had taken German citizenship during the war. When the Dutch attempted to prosecute Bruins in 1949, the West German government refused the extradition request.

If the post-war German record of war crimes prosecutions has been inconsistent, it’s attempt to instill in post-war generations the ethic of nie wieder—never again—and it’s pedagogical approach to remembering and memorializing victims of Nazism has been reasonably successful. But even these ideological successes are being slowly repealed. With the prosecutions of Bruins and Werner C., the groaning that such trials are unnecessary, needlessly cruel, and part of Germany’s guilt fetish—views made more socially acceptable after the publication of books like Günter Grass’s Crabwalk and Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand, which highlighted German victims of the war—are astoundingly common on the German-language Internet. Indeed, I have had innumerable conversations in Germany with people “exhausted by guilt,” who indulge in the tired and flabby argument that they aren’t culpable for their grandfather’s sins, despite no one ever having claimed that they were.

And Germans haven’t always done memory well, engaging in the pointless and stupid criminalization of hideous ideas and filling jails with halfwits who promulgate them (for instance, the de facto ban on the publication of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, despite its widespread availability online and the various bans on Nazi symbols and propaganda that are codified into law).

But they are right to haul—or wheel—a geriatric SS man present at a notorious, if largely forgotten, massacre into the courtroom. Countries who don’t reckon with the past, shunting memories of political and institutional violence to the side in favor of “moving forward,” risk banalizing totalitarianism. For instance, a recent Gallup poll found that “residents in seven out of 11 countries that were part of the [Soviet Union] are more likely to believe its collapse harmed their countries than benefited them.” And Germany saw a recent wave of nostalgia for East German dictatorship (bloodlessly called “Ostalgie”), because there was no commensurate Nuremberg Trial, no nie wieder, no truth and reconciliation at the collapse of Soviet communism.

It’s unclear what role Werner C. played in the massacre, though years of rigorous academic research of Nazi crimes both inside and outside Germany have punctured the myth of soldiers merely “following orders,” lest the poor conscript too became a victim of fascism. If Werner C. pulled a trigger or pulled the pin from a grenade, or pushed children into a locked church in Oradour, he should breathe his last breath inside a prison. A small measure of justice, 70 years later, and reassurance that not all the perpetrators have “escaped the penalty of their crime.”