War Crimes Nazi Assassin Goes on Trial in Germany
Heinrich Boere, 88, a former member of Hitler's SS, goes on trial in a German court on Wednesday charged with murdering three Dutch citizens during World War II. It will be one of the last Nazi war crimes prosecutions, along with next month's trial of John Demjanjuk.
Nazi hunter Ulrich Maass is a satisfied man. The assassin he has been chasing for years is going to stand trial at last. In the western German city of Aachen on Wednesday, Maass, a German state prosecutor from the city of Dortmund, will deliver his opening arguments in what will probably be the last trial against a Dutch war criminal from World War II, and one of the last Nazi war crimes trials.
Former SS member Heinrich Boere (88) is accused of the murders of three Dutch citizens: Fritz Bicknesse, Teun de Groot and Frans Kusters. The son of a Dutch father and a German mother, Boere was a member of the SS Sonderkommando Feldmeijer, which killed more than 50 Dutch citizens between September 1943 and September 1944 in retaliation for anti-German actions by the resistance.
At the beginning of this year it looked like Boere had slipped through Maass' fingers. The court in Aachen ruled that Boere was physically unable to stand trial. But Maass appealed the verdict, and Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karslruhe, overruled the decision, clearing the way for Boere's trial. Maass is asking for a life sentence.
Boere was sentenced to death in the Netherlands in 1949 for his part in the murders -- in absentia. He had escaped in 1947 from a mine in the southeast province Limburg where he had been sentenced to forced labor, and fled to Germany. Because he had a German mother, Boere qualified for German citizenship, and since Germany doesn't extradite its own citizens, he was out of the reach of the Dutch courts.
But in 2000 a Dutch documentary filmmaker, Rob van Olm, tracked Boere down in Aachen. In the film Boere showed no sign of remorse. "I don't feel guilty. That's why I have always made sure they couldn't catch me," he said.
Boere served for two years with an SS division on the Eastern Front. It had made him indifferent to violence, he said. "We would eat our lunch sitting on top of dead Russians. The resistance to me were the enemy."
After the documentary was broadcast, Dutch and German authorities became interested in Boere again. German authorities have in recent years stepped up their efforts to track down and prosecute the last living Nazi war criminals. In August, Josef Scheungraber was given a life sentence for 14 murders in Italy. John Demjanjuk, who is charged with complicity in 28,000 murders in the concentration camp Sobibor, was recently extradited from the US and faces trial in Munich in November.
Maass took Boere's Dutch court file from 1949 to the court in Aachen. The court initially adopted the Dutch guilty ruling, but that was overturned by an appeals court in Cologne because Boere did not have legal representation at the time. As a result Maass now has 13 court days to construct his case against Maass from scratch.
He is not expecting any major problems. "After all, Boere has confessed. Now it is up to me to prove the murders were malicious, otherwise the statute of limitations on them has expired." Maass also has to prove that Boere's life would not have been in danger if he had refused to follow orders. "Many war criminals have hidden behind that excuse in the past, but times have changed. Judges no longer just accept this argument," said Maass.
Germany allows relatives of victims of war criminals to become co-plaintiffs in their trials. They have the right to enter evidence and to question the accused. One co-plaintiff, Teun de Groot, plans to sit in the front row at the Aachen court house on Wednesday to get a good look at the man who murdered his father on Sept. 3, 1944.
Too Little too Late
De Groot's father helped people hide from the Germans, but that was not the reason he was killed, says his son. "If the Germans had known this they would have arrested him much sooner. It was well-known that my dad was anti-German. The NSB (the Dutch Nazi party) had staged a demonstration outside his bicycle repair shop. The Nazis wanted to send a signal: actions by the resistance would be reciprocated with extreme violence."
After the war, De Groot heard that Boere had been sentenced in absentia, but he didn't hear any more about him until 2000. When the documentary aired it made him very angry. "He didn't show the least bit of remorse. I hope he gets a life sentence, life with interest, for every day he has evaded justice."
In preparing for the trial De Groot was assisted by German historian Stephan Stracke, who wrote his doctoral dissertation about the treatment of Nazi war criminals. Stracke says it is "a disgrace" that Boere is only now facing trial. "We began protesting outside his door and that of Herbertus Bicker ten years ago," he says. Bicker, also known as the Butcher of Ommen, was another Dutch war criminal living in Germany; he died last year at 93 without ever having stood trial.
Stracke is not impressed by Germany's newfound zeal in bringing war criminals to justice. "Now that there are only a few them left they are suddenly being put on trial. If they had done this 10 years ago it could have been hundreds. Those old Nazis have long been protected by friends in high places. Now they are finally gone, but a lot of people have escaped justice because of them. At least Boere will get what he deserves."