"There was this boy," says Werner Christukat. "He came walking over the hill. A small blond boy with a bicycle and he wanted to go past me and into the village. I can still picture it exactly. I stopped him and wanted to chase him away, but then the junior squad leader came up and started yelling at me "
The events described by Christukat took place almost 70 years ago, but he has never forgotten them. Yet ever since Nazi hunters paid him a visit last year, he has been combing through his memory for additional images: during the day when he sits in his sunroom in his knitted vest surrounded by pictures of his grandchildren; at night when he wanders sleeplessly through his dark home.
Everything is coming back. "Not a night goes by in which I don't think of Oradour. In front of me, I can still see the church through the treetops. I hear a bang and then the screaming of women and children. ... I can't get it out of my mind. I felt so dreadfully sorry for them. But the worst is that I couldn't save the boy."
In the summer of 1944, Christukat was 19 years old, a machine-gunner with the Waffen-SS and trained to obey orders. He had only just arrived in France a short time before. "My honor is loyalty. A German soldier fights chivalrously," he says. "I believed that stuff from Adolf Hitler."
Now, Christukat can once again picture himself under the gray skies of Oradour, standing with his machine gun on the street. Or was it a dirt track? Did he get to the edge of the town on foot or on a truck? How did he get to the church later and why did he go there in the first place? He recalls saving two women by sending them away. But he can't prove it.
Investigators don't believe him. They showed him a list bearing his name and confused him with their questions. He entangled himself in contradictions. Since then, he furrows his brow as though doing a crossword puzzle -- but the longer he tries to solve it, the more difficult it becomes to fit the words together. At stake, though, is his life and the question of his culpability.
Christukat's unit -- the 3rd company of the 1st battalion of the SS mechanized infantry division "Der Führer" -- marched into the southwestern French village of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944. Soldiers herded all of the villagers together. They shot the men to death in barns and locked the women and children in the village church, set off explosives, threw hand grenades inside and burned the church to the ground. They incinerated the entire village, including all 642 people they found there; 181 men, 254 women and 207 children according to the indictment. Many of them were burned alive. Charred remains of mothers clutching babies were found, as were elementary school pupils embracing in death.
An Indictment in the Mailbox
It was one of the worst massacres perpetrated by the SS in Western Europe, and the motivation for it remains unclear. Oradour remains an issue in Franco-German relations. Last year, Christukat watched on television as German President Joachim Gauck walked through the village's ruins hand-in-hand with his French counterpart. Gauck begged for forgiveness, a move which Christukat supports. But Gauck also said: "I share the bitterness over the fact that the murderers were never brought to justice. I will address that in my country and will not remain silent."
Three days before Christmas, Christukat found the indictment in his mailbox, 70 years after the fact. Christukat, a former construction foreman, now an 89-year-old widower and father of two daughters, is suspected of having participated in shooting the men of Oradour. In addition, it is believed he helped murder the women and children, "either by taking on blockading duties" or carrying "flammable material into the church," according to the indictment. In total, he is charged with taking part in murder in 25 cases and abetting the murders of several hundred others -- an insidious, horrific, base crime.
News of the indictment rapidly spread. Die Welt, Radio Vatican, Hürriyet, El País: Everyone reported on it. The "last living killers" were being prosecuted, the "SS Monster from Oradour." Even in China, people read about it.
Now, the Cologne district court must decide if there is sufficient proof to put Christukat on trial. It is difficult to imagine him as a brutal SS henchman -- a friendly, cheerful old man squinting over the frames of his glasses. If it weren't for Oradour. "I have always felt guilty," Christukat says. "I was there. I couldn't prevent it. But I didn't kill anyone. I didn't fire a single shot."
There is one historical fact in the case of Oradour: 642 dead. But what else can be said for sure after 70 years? There is the truth of the victims and the truth of the perpetrators. And there is the subjective truth of memory. The further a crime fades into the past, the more disparate the different truths become.
Not a single shot fired. That is Christukat's truth.
One evening in January, the Nazi hunters were sitting in a rural inn near Bremen chatting before the fireplace, candles on the surrounding tables. Andreas Brendel, head of the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit in Dortmund, and Stefan Willms, unit head for investigations into Nazi crimes for North Rhine-Westphalia's state criminal police office, had just searched the nearby house of an 87-year-old. He too is thought to have been in Oradour.
Recognizing Historical Responsibility
Photo albums, diaries, letters from back then -- they found nothing usable. Plus: children and grandchildren who are shocked by the investigation, a talkative old man with no feeling of culpability. The usual, Brendel says.
Brendel is 51, prefers suits, has a high forehead and wears black-framed, architect-glasses. Willms is three years older, wears a full beard and jeans and has a head full of unkempt, graying curls. Both have been hunting Nazis for almost 20 years. Brendel ascended to his current position three years ago.
For decades, the West German judiciary did little to bring Nazi perpetrators to justice. Charges for Third Reich-era crimes were brought against some 15,000 people, only 7,000 were convicted. Often, penalties were mild or those accused were acquitted.
Today, though, Germany wants to prove that it recognizes its historical responsibility and investigators are now searching the globe for the erstwhile murderers: in Russia, Belarus, South America. But it is a bit late. The war criminals are dying out.
Brendel has led over 100 different investigations. He led the prosecution team against four or five of them. One died just days before the trial was to begin; the files were already in the courtroom.
There is no lack of political support for the investigations these days; the problem is more of a physical nature. Willms compares it with a puzzle: "It would have been complete in 1945. But now, a piece goes missing every day because another one dies." Most of the men they are currently pursuing use walkers. But if they aren't yet suffering from dementia, they can still be prosecuted. Still, few of those who gave the orders to kill remain -- and for a long time, German courts allowed those to walk who had merely been following orders. That is how the law was interpreted.
Brendel says he always thought that was misguided. But nevertheless, his office would likely be closed down by now if it weren't for the verdict handed down in the case of John Demjanjuk three years ago. He was a guard at the Sobibór death camp and the court found him guilty even though it was impossible to prove that he himself had committed a specific crime. It proved sufficient that he was a cog in the machinery. Because Demjanjuk died before the Federal Court of Justice could examine the verdict, it remains unclear whether the Demjanjuk case opened a new legal chapter in the prosecution of Nazi-era crimes. But it certainly improved the outlook of the Nazi hunters.
In Baden-Württemberg recently, four elderly men were temporarily locked up in pre-trial detention, suspected of having been guards at Auschwitz. Following seven months of detention, the court elected not to pursue the case of one 94-year-old because he is suffering from dementia. Relatives of the victims have appealed the decision.
The Dutch criminal law expert Frits Rüter, head of an Amsterdam-based project researching justice and Nazi-era crimes, has accused Germany's Nazi hunters of activism. He says that the German judiciary initially failed in its obligation and refrained from pursuing perpetrators who were just cogs in the Nazi machinery. Now, only aged men are left and punishing them helps nobody, he says. It is too late, he adds.
Brendel thinks that is nonsense. But why? "There is no statute of limitations on murder," he says. "We owe it to the victims."
In 1953, a court in Bordeaux handed down tough penalties to SS members involved in the Oradour massacre, but none of the convicts had to stay in prison for long. In 1983, an East Berlin court sentenced a senior SS officer to life in prison, but he was let out in 1997. In West Germany, all investigations were abandoned.
Following the Demjanjuk verdict, Willms visited the Stasi archive in Berlin and searched through old East German court files. He stumbled across an old company list. Brendel believes it reflects the company membership at the time of the massacre. But who created it? When? Why? Nobody knows.
In early 2013, Brendel and Willms walked through the charred remains of Oradour with one of the last survivors of the massacre. They came as representatives of Germany's toothless judiciary. But they had the list in their pocket -- a list which included eight men who were still alive. Christukat is one of them.
Brendel believes that it would be a novelty if he were able to try Christukat in court. Rather than being an Auschwitz guard, Christukat was part of a combat unit. Their mission: Push the Allies out of Normandy and fight the partisans. Furthermore, Christukat was only 19 at the time of the massacre, meaning the war crimes trial would have to be held in the juvenile division of a criminal court.