Markus Deggerich: Will Germany Finally Rehabilitate Nazi-Era 'Traitors'?





[Markus Deggerich is Berlin correspondent.]

When Ludwig Baumann sees posters for the movie "Valkyrie," in which Tom Cruise plays Hitler's would-be assassin Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, he gets choked up every time. The 87-year-old feels once again the same mixture of despair, bitterness and anger that has accompanied him his whole life. "How can we celebrate Stauffenberg as a hero," he says, "when Johann is still considered a traitor here in Germany?"

He is referring to Private First Class Johann Lukaschitz from Vienna. In 1944, Lukaschitz lay in the infirmary of the Wehrmacht prison Torgau-Fort Zinna, his joints badly damaged as a result of having his arms and legs bound together with heavy chains. Baumann, a convicted deserter, lay in the neighboring bed, suffering from diphtheria. Johann was a "thoroughly reflective, calm and humane man," recalls Baumann.
Lukaschitz, who was then 24, was sentenced to death for "failing to report a planned act of treason." A soldiers' council based on the Soviet model had been formed in Lukaschitz's unit. Lukaschitz had not wanted to join the council, but he also did not want to blow the whistle on his comrades. That was precisely the reason why he should die, ruled the Reichskriegsgericht, the highest Nazi-era military court for crimes of treason, on Feb. 3, 1944. A few days later, Lukaschitz was executed as a traitor by guillotine.

The verdicts against men like Lukaschitz were never repealed. Around 30,000 deserters, conscientious objectors and traitors were sentenced to death by the Nazi judiciary, of whom an estimated 20,000 were actually executed. The German parliament, the Bundestag, in 2002 approved the blanket rehabilitation of all Wehrmacht deserters, conscientious objectors and so-called Wehrkraftzersetzer or "underminers of morale." Only those convicted of Kriegsverrat -- treason committed by members of Hitler's Wehrmacht -- were explicitly excluded, because it could not be ruled out that the supposed "traitors" had harmed German soldiers or civilians through their actions.

The renowned military historian Wolfram Wette and his colleague Detlef Vogel have called the Nazi treason verdicts "The Last Taboo" in a book of that name. In their study -- the first ever devoted to the subject of treason during the Third Reich -- the researchers came to the conclusion that, based on the records which have been analyzed so far, the soldiers acted mainly out of ethical motives. (Most of the relevant documents have still not been examined, however.)

The work of the researchers forms the basis for an initiative aimed at having the sentences overturned. The bill has been filed with the Bundestag since 2006. But the conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats -- who together make up Germany's governing grand coalition -- have so far prevented a decision on the bill, partly because the initiative comes from the far-left Left Party, which is unpopular with the grand coalition.

Hence the story of this last struggle to rehabilitate the Third Reich traitors is also a story about how Germany is still struggling to deal with its Nazi past, and an example of how party politics can delay for years an idea which in reality has the potential to be supported by a majority of lawmakers...

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