Germany moves to clear Nazi-era 'traitors'

8th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The legislation, supported by all five parties represented in the Bundestag lower house, is the culmination of a decades-long fight for justice on behalf of those who turned their backs on Hitler's forces.

Berlin -- The German parliament is due Tuesday to vote to lift Nazi-era convictions of so-called wartime traitors whose names, 70 years after the fighting, have still not been cleared.

The legislation, supported by all five parties represented in the Bundestag lower house, is the culmination of a decades-long fight for justice on behalf of those who turned their backs on Hitler's forces.

One man in particular, 87-year-old Ludwig Baumann, will be sitting in the chamber Tuesday to savour the long-delayed victory of his campaign to rehabilitate these enemies of the Third Reich.

Baumann narrowly escaped execution for deserting his Wehrmacht company in Bordeaux in 1942 but he endured torture after his capture and was ostracised by his fellow Germans for decades after World War II.

"We thought that after the war, what we had done would be appreciated but we were only insulted as cowards, criminals and traitors and threatened," he told reporters.

"Many of us -- the few of us who survived -- had a bitter, humiliating end. No one was on our side."

Now, just days after solemn commemorations to mark the start of World War II on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, MPs are finally ready to close the book on what campaigners call an enduring injustice.

Nazi military tribunals sentenced some 30,000 people to death for desertion or treason during the war, of whom 20,000 were executed, according to historians Wolfram Wette and Detlev Vogel, whose work is cited in the draft law.

Around 100,000 men were sentenced to prison. The victims were not only Germans but also citizens of Austria, Denmark, Norway, Romania and Luxembourg.

All who survived had a criminal record, often could not find jobs and even faced death threats for their "betrayal of the Fatherland."

In 2002, parliament wiped the convictions of conscientious objectors and deserters such as Baumann from the books but not those of "wartime traitors."

These included soldiers and officers accused of crimes including political resistance -- even critical remarks about the Nazis made in private -- or helping persecuted Jews.

Since then, there had been repeated attempts to erase the convictions but no clear majority in parliament.

Conservatives had long opposed an across-the-board rehabilitation, calling for a case-by-case review to determine whether there had been "legitimate" convictions.

However a justice ministry review conducted by former constitutional court judge Hans Hugo Klein found that the Nazis' treason law dating from 1934 was a clear instrument of repression, so vague as to be wide open to capricious rulings.

Historians and family members of the convicted have long called for the official rehabilitation. Few if any of those convicted but not executed are still alive today.

Recalling his daring bid to escape the Wehrmacht, Baumann said a natural sympathy with the Nazis' victims compelled him to desert.

"I recognised then that it was a criminal, genocidal war," he said.

He was caught a day later and given the death penalty only to have it commuted, with the help of his wealthy father, to 12 years confinement in prisons and concentration camps.

He was subjected to vicious abuse there and then deployed to the eastern front in a "punishment battalion" which he miraculously survived.

Baumann founded the German Federation of Victims of National Socialist Military Justice in 1990 and has since then fought an uphill battle to see the records wiped clean.

In Austria, campaigners are still seeking the annulment of the verdicts of the Nazis' military tribunals and the rapid settlement of deserters' claims for aid as victims as well as a national memorial for the deserters.

Such a memorial was erected in Cologne, western Germany Tuesday.

AFP/Expatica

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