- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009


Gino Massetti was only 15 when Nazi troops rounded him up with 10 other Italian civilians and forced them into a barn in Tuscany before blowing it up — a massacre carried out in revenge after partisans killed two soldiers.

Though Mr. Massetti, the lone survivor, couldn’t identify who ordered the slaughter, former Wehrmacht Lt. Josef Scheungraber was convicted of murder based on circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene as the ranking officer. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Scheungraber’s lawyer, Klaus Goebel, said he would appeal what he called “a scandalous verdict.” The 90-year-old Scheungraber declined to comment.

Though witnesses in such cases are rare and memories have faded over more than six decades since World War II, the case that concluded Tuesday underscores that it is still possible to win a conviction against Nazi war criminals, specialists say.

“Even old age cannot protect one from prosecution,” Norbert Frei, a historian at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, told Bayerischen Rundfunk radio.

An American lawyer who served as the U.S. Justice Department’s lead lawyer in the 2002 case against John Demjanjuk said the verdict has important implications for the German trial of the retired autoworker accused of being a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp.

“It’s going to be a similar body of evidence that is used against Demjanjuk, and the fact that you have a conviction in this case is a very promising sign for the Demjanjuk prosecution,” Jonathan Drimmer, now in private practice, said by telephone from his Washington office.

The 89-year-old Mr. Demjanjuk, charged as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 people at Sobibor, was deported from the United States in May after losing all appeals there. The same court where Scheungraber was convicted had not decided when Mr. Demjanjuk might go on trial.

The Demjanjuk case is another where there are no known direct living witnesses, and prosecutors are relying on historical documents in their attempt to prove he served as a guard at the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In its ruling, the Munich state court ruled that Scheungraber’s men exacted vengeance against the population of Falzano di Cortona, near the Italian town of Arezzo, after local partisans killed two German soldiers in June 1944.

“It was about revenge,” Judge Manfred Goetzl said.

Scheungraber, who was a 25-year-old in command of a company of engineers at the time, maintained he was not in Falzano di Cortona when the killings happened, but was overseeing reconstruction of a nearby bridge. However, the court said evidence presented over the past 11 months showed Scheungraber “was the only officer present to give the order.”

The court said he had ordered two of his men on a mission, and sent his driver to look for them when they did not return. When they were found dead, Scheungraber organized their burial; pictures showing him there were presented at the trial.

“The accused, who felt personally responsible for the deaths of two of his comrades, wanted to counter the fear, the hate and the helplessness of the soldiers, who expected protective measures on one hand, and revenge on the other,” the court said in its ruling.

Scheungraber drew several deep breaths after his conviction was announced and listened to the judge’s explanation with his eyes closed.

“The past caught up with the defendant,” prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz said. “He will have to atone for his guilt.”

Scheungraber was acquitted of ordering soldiers to shoot to death three Italian men and one woman before the massacre in the barn; the court said it could not be proven that he gave the order.

During the trial, Mr. Massetti described how he was rounded up with the others and herded into the barn.

“I heard a scream, and that was it then. They were all dead,” Mr. Massetti testified.

Just before the barn was blown up, Mr. Massetti recalled, he saw a man he assumed was an officer arrive on a motorcycle and give what appeared to be an order. Mr. Massetti could not describe the officer and didn’t understand what he said.

Mr. Massetti said it was down to luck that he survived. He was partly shielded from the blast after a heavy beam and a man fell on top of him.

A former work colleague also testified that he remembered Scheungraber saying in the 1970s that he couldn’t visit Italy because of what happened during the war, which involved “shooting a dozen men and blowing them into the air.”

The witness, Eugen Schuh, testified he did not remember Scheungraber saying he had given the order, but said the defendant told the story “as if it were his decision.”

If there is reasonable doubt in a case, German courts are supposed to rule for the defendant. Stephen Klemp — a researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center — said in past decades, even cases with seemingly stronger evidence tended to go in the defendants’ favor.

He said the Scheungraber verdict was a “good sign” for future cases.

“I would not have been surprised if he would have been acquitted … but maybe the times are changing for Nazi war criminals in Germany now,” he said.

Mr. Drimmer pointed out, meanwhile, that American courts have been much more willing to convict on circumstantial evidence, and suggested the attitude was starting to spread across the Atlantic.

He also said in historical cases — especially involving wartime experiences where someone catches a glimpse of someone involved in an atrocity - witness accounts are generally unreliable.

“These are going to be recollections that, 60 years after the fact, it’s going to be hard to put a lot of credibility into for a criminal charge,” Mr. Drimmer said.

After the verdict, court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel said Scheungraber would not go to prison until the appeals process is finished. That could take months.

A few relatives of Scheungraber’s victims attended the judgment and expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

“This was a very important verdict for our family,” said Angiola Lescai, 60, whose grandfather was killed in the barn. “We view this as a very beautiful gesture of reconciliation.”

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