"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.
'My Father Never Would Have Shot'
If all goes well, the biologically inevitable end to proceedings against Nazi criminals could then be pushed a few years into the future. Why not pursue those who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes? Or even younger?
Brendel's problem is evidence. Christukat's name doesn't appear even once in the 40,000 pages of documents relating to Oradour that have been compiled since 1945. No witness has ever described him. The prosecution's only linchpin is the list.
One soldier, whose testimony provides the basis for prosecutors' belief that Christukat must have been part of a specific firing squad, confessed in 1945 and provided detailed information regarding names and ranks. But he didn't mention Christukat. He can no longer be interrogated; he is dead.
How, then, can Brendel be so sure that Christukat is a murderer? "Experience and knowledge of human nature. Mathematical and physical realities. Much of what he says cannot be objectively true," Brendel says. Does that mean that Christukat is lying? Brendel shakes his head. "We aren't often lied to deliberately. The old men believe it themselves: 'My weapon was not fired.' The 87-year-old we visited today said the same thing."
A few days after Brendel and Willms searched the home near Bremen, Christukat's lawyer joins him in his sunroom. Rainer Pohlen has been a criminal defense attorney in Mönchengladbach for 30 years and has defended white collar criminals, murderers and rapists. But an old SS man? Pohlen's father belonged to an anti-aircraft brigade in World War II, part of the "Flakhelfer Generation" of wartime teenagers who were mobilized in a last-ditch effort to defend the homeland once the war turned sour.
"My generation indicted our parents," Pohlen says. "Why did you look away? But they weren't all perpetrators. Christukat was not a killer. He too was traumatized by Oradour, no matter what he did or did not do there."
'A War Criminal in the Family'
When the investigators left last September, Christukat piled up all of his pills on the table in front of him. That is how his daughter found him. "Now you have a war criminal in the family," he said.
They had never asked their father about his experiences in the war. Now, they remembered a night they spent in France on the way to Spain with their parents in the 1970s. "Papa was completely unraveled. 'Was there a maneuver in the night?' he asked. 'I heard shots fired,'" his daughter recalls. "We just laughed. We didn't know what was wrong with him."
He hadn't told them about the Nazi hunters' first visit in the fall of 2011. "They were friendly," Christukat now says, and asked him if he wanted to call a lawyer. "No, what for?," he answered. "I don't have anything to hide. Hitler is the only one to blame for all that."
After the district court in Cologne made Christukat's indictment public in January, paparazzi from the German tabloid Bild lay in wait for him at a supermarket. The resulting photo shows him pushing a walker. The article bore a headline in French reading "Here Is a War Criminal Going Shopping" -- as though he had lost his right to buy liverwurst. In the Internet version of the story, a link led to a list of the "biggest war criminals," depicting Christukat as an SS monster on par with Göring, Speer and Milosevic.
Since then, his daughters haven't allowed him to leave home. Their father has an irregular heartbeat, has lost 13 kilos (28 pounds) and his doctor has prescribed anti-anxiety medication. He is often awakened by nightmares, as has often been the case over the years. But then his wife, his only confidant, isn't there. She passed away five years ago; he provided care to her until the very end. "She often shook me at night and said, 'Werner, wake up.' Where are you right now?' -- I would say 'this shitty Oradour. I can't get my head around it.'"
"Germany is trying to come to terms with its history on the back of our father," says Christukat's youngest daughter, "because they haven't been able to find anybody else."
Heading for the Front
And what if he did shoot? "He never would have done that, ever," says his eldest daughter. "That is something he can hold on to." One of his grandsons is married to a Belgian. When the accusations against him became public, she gave him a hug and said, "Grandpa, I still love you just as much as before."
Christukat pulls out a photo album for his defense attorney, labelled in old German script. It shows the estate in East Prussia where Christukat was born, children playing accordions, haystacks, horses, tractors. His father was a member of the SA and at age 10, Christukat wore the uniform of the Jungvolk, a Nazi organization for boys aged 10 to 14. At 14, he switched to a Hitler Youth uniform. At the time, his family believed that Adolf was saving Germany with its invasion of Poland. Once, as a boy, Christukat stood on a street in Königsberg (today's Russian exclave of Kaliningrad) and gave the Hitler salute as the Nazi leader drove by in a convertible.
In 1942, at 17, Christukat was drafted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, compulsory service in Nazi Germany for young men that preceded joining the army. They marched and their spades glistened in the sun. Then along came the Waffen SS recruiter, a tall man with blue eyes. Christukat signed up.
They sent the 18-year-old to the Russian front. The soil in the trenches was soft, bodies were buried beneath it. The rocket launchers roard, the shells whizzed by, "and then came the screams: 'Medic!'" He was injured after only two weeks. When he was able to walk again, his unit was redeployed.
At the end of May 1944, he headed for France in a freight car. On June 7, he joined his company, and on June 10, Oradour burned. A week later, Canadian troops nearly shot off his leg near Caen in northern France. After four or five weeks on the front, the war ended for Christukat. "I didn't see much of it. Only this terrible crime," he says.
'That Asshole Hitler'
Christukat continues in the rasping tone of an officer. "Forward, march, march! Exercises with gas masks, and singing at the same time." Christukat begins singing one. Then he says: "I am ashamed for Germany. That that asshole Hitler was able to do that with us."
For some days now, Christukat has been looking for a document which he claims offers proof of his innocence. He says he has already been absolved once over allegations relating to Oradour. "Acquitted in the name of the people! -- I can see that in front of me."
He searches and searches and finally emerges, triumphantly holding a file folder. He found it! His daughter takes a look at the yellowed document and says, "Oh dad, that's something totally different." He then puts on his glasses. Indeed, it's a ruling in a case a construction firm brought against him shortly after the war. Disappointed, he puts the folder down.
Lawyer Pohlen wonders how Christukat might hold up under questioning in court. For 70 years now, Christukat's memories of what he himself experienced have been mixed with news reports, things he has read and fantasy. Neuroscientists say that people continually, yet subconsciously, reconstruct their autobiographical awareness with such material throughout their lives in order to make looking back more palatable. If that's true, then it will be extremely difficult to prove whether Christukat simply cannot -- or chooses not to -- remember. Whether he is telling his customized version of the truth, or whether he is lying.
How much clarification could such proceedings provide?
Christukat was, in fact, the object of prosecutors' interest once before because of Oradour, in 1978. He spoke openly with investigators and the case was then closed due to a lack of evidence.
When the Nazi hunters returned more than 30 years later, a number of contradictions caught their attention. The unit the indictment claims Christukat belonged to searched a farm and an elderly woman was shot. At first Christukat stated that he hadn't been at the farm. But then he said he had been there and that he had heard shots, but that he didn't look. But why would he have been there if he didn't belong to that group? That's the clue that led investigators to him.
Searching for Compassion
Another inconsistency: In 1978, he also mentioned the two women he claims to have rescued, but not the failed rescue of the boy. Yet in 2011, he claimed that his commander yelled at him and sent him away without any further orders because of the compassion he showed to the boy.
After his first visit to Christukat, investigator Willms retraced with a camera the route the suspect claims to have taken 70 years ago. Do the sightlines match up to his testimony? Was it possible from certain spots to hear the things Christukat claims to have heard?
When investigators returned to his home this past autumn, they showed him photos, sketches and a PowerPoint presentation showing buildings reconstructed from the ruins. "You claim to have stood on this street, but that can't be possible," they said. "You claim that you could see a box with explosives next to the altar through the church door. But you can't see the altar from the door. You have to go inside."
Ultimately, Christukat is no longer entirely certain of his memories. "If my name is on the list, then there must be something to it," he says. "If they say so, then it must have been the case." According to the transcripts, he said at some point, "Everything you have investigated is true." But he claims he didn't shoot.
Christkut is unhappy as he waves the indictment. "Nothing in here is true," he says. "Then why did you say it was?" his lawyer asks. "I don't know!" Christukat says, slamming his hand down on the table. "They were so persuasive. They drove me crazy for four hours. Perhaps I imagined the box in the church -- it was so long ago." "Oh dear, what trouble did Adolf bring upon me?"
Then silence descends.
"But the two women. I won't let them take that from me. They wore headscarves and came from the forest with baskets. I chased them away."
Looking at the Facts
The lawyer then says, "The prosecutor claims there were women who escaped, but they could not have been at the place where you claim to have been."
"But those are the facts," Christukat cries, with tears in his eyes. "I have always consoled myself with them -- at least you saved two people!"
"Well, perhaps they were later shot by someone else," Pohlen says.
By this point, Christukat is no longer listening. His head is sunk almost to the level of the yellow tablecloth. "Now nobody even believes that …"
"But that's not the issue the court will be dealing with," says Pohlen. "Rather it will focus on whether anything can be proven against you."
The Waffen-SS was certainly a criminal organization, but does that mean that every member of the Waffen-SS was a criminal?
Military historian Peter Lieb, an expert on German war crimes in France, says that the commanders of the troops in Oradour had learned their craft in the east. But the lower ranks of the 3rd Company were filled with relatively inexperienced men like Christukat, with some as young as 17. They were a unit of beginners heading to the front. Was it clear to them that they were about to commit a crime? Probably not.
There's another fact that needs to be considered as well. A massacre is a collaborative undertaking. Historians claim that 200 men were gathered at Oradour, significantly more than would have been needed to incinerate a village. Pohlen calculates that 50 to 60 men would have been needed to conduct the shootings. Around a dozen for the murders that took place in the church, and then a few more to bring the combustion agents. There must have been a sizeable number of people who didn't kill.
Pohlen also believes that, if necessary, Christukat could even claim that he had no choice but to follow orders. He could say that he had to shoot or he would have been shot himself. Prosecutor Brendel, however, says that such claims are considered to have been disproven today.
Today, that is.
But did Werner Christukat have any way of knowing that at the time? Would he have had the ability to run away or resist? How much civil courage can a prosecutor of today demand from a 19 year old who had been socialized under the Nazis?
"Here's the issue," says Pohlen. "Even if he did shoot at the time, today's criminal law can hardly be applied."
In January, a French reporter with BFM TV rang Christukat's doorbell. The interview was broadcast across France. "I want to say to you that I am terribly sorry about what happened and that I was absolutely horrified at the time," he told the station. "It has haunted me almost every night for nearly 70 years. But I did not fire a single shot. I had the enormous fortune that I didn't have to shoot."
Christukat was shaken, with tears in his eyes, as he spoke about the two women. "And then the boy came over the hill with his bicycle. The worst thing was that I couldn't save the boy."
After Werner Christukat finished speaking, another elderly man appeared on screen -- Robert Hébras, one of the few survivors in Oradour. He pretended to be shot, acted dead and he stayed hidden under the bodies of others as they were set on fire. He waited until the fire had reached him before running away. His mother and his two sisters, aged nine and 22 both burned to death in the church.
The station's moderator then said: "He said he was sorry."
Searching for the Boy
Hébras responded by saying, "Yet another who claims to have done nothing. But if nobody was shooting, then how did 640 people die?"
The moderator then added: "He says he has had nightmares every night for the past 70 years. Would you be able to forgive this man today?"
"I lost my mother and my sisters," Hébras said. "And he says that he has thought about it every day and night ever since and that he's actually unhappier than we are? Please. I know that they were forced to shoot back then. And I excuse him, but forgiving is something different. I would be prepared to talk, but I would not shake his hand."
The moderator then asked if he wanted Christukat to go to trial.
"I don't have a special wish for him to be convicted," Hébras said. "I just want him to tell the truth. He's even claiming that he saved people."
Afterwards, the chairman of the association of families of the victims at Oradour weighed in. Claude Milord wasn't even born at the time, but 20 of his relatives perished in the massacre. "That is the statement of an old man full of remorse and compassion," he said. "One who describes the scope of the horror and says he can't sleep at night and that he has had to think about this his entire life. That's different from the speeches we've heard up until now. It took the justice system 70 years to act, but now it has to determine where the guilt lies and where it doesn't. But a single verdict isn't going to change the course of events."
A month after Christukat's appearance on TV, a man got in touch with the station. He said he may have been the boy at the time and wanted to thank the person who saved his life.
Christukat says he was beside himself with joy, but then it turned out the man had been too old. He couldn't have been the one.