Nazi-era treason convictions overturned

September 9, 2009 14:40
2 minute read.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (photo credit: AP)


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Germany's parliament unanimously passed a blanket measure Tuesday overturning Nazi-era verdicts convicting people of treason, nearly 65 years after the end of World War II.

German Chancellor Angela...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Photo: AP

Treason convictions carried the death penalty and were handed down in Nazi Germany for any act deemed harmful to the nation or helpful to the enemy. Under that umbrella, people were convicted of treason for political resistance, aiding Jews, helping prisoners of war, selling products on the black market and scores of other acts.

"By rehabilitating all so-called war traitors, we restore the honor and dignity of a long forgotten group of victims of the Nazi justice system," German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said. "This is also an important signal for the relatives."

Since the end of the war in 1945, challenges to treason convictions had to be handled on an individual basis with a prosecutor weighing whether each one should be overturned.

"The people who were convicted of treason are dead, that is true, but it is important that they will be rehabilitated and remembered," said Christine Lambrecht, a lawmaker from the Social Democratic Party who supported the measure.

Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the Bavarian-only sister Christian Social Union had initially been against a blanket measure overturning the convictions, arguing some of those sentenced may have harmed comrades in arms.

But after a study concluded it was impossible to determine whether the acts for which people were sentenced "harmed a third party," they supported the legislation.

Recent research by the military historians Wolfram Wette and Detlef Vogel has shown that ordinary soldiers were often sentenced to death for treason.

"Even if not all of those who were sentenced to death as war traitors were political resistance fighters, they definitely all were victims of a criminal justice system that killed in order to maintain the Nazi regime," Zypries said.

It is not clear exactly how many people were convicted of treason during World War II, but tens of thousands Germans were sentenced to death for desertion, troop demoralization or treason.

Even though most of the convictions are today considered wrongful, those who survived them were often ostracized after the war.

"When we began to fight (for rehabilitation), the overwhelming majority of Germans were against us," Ludwig Baumann, the head of the group lobbying for the blanket rehabilitation, told reporters last month. "We were called cowards and criminals."

Baumann, who was convicted of desertion, not treason, was exonerated by a 2002 measure that rehabilitated deserters and homosexuals criminalized by the Nazis.

"I have been so humiliated," Baumann said. "For me this is a late fulfillment."

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