Germany overturns Nazi-era treason verdicts

Germany took two cautious steps toward dealing more openly with its military history on Tuesday, overturning Nazi-era treason convictions and honouring soldiers killed during the postwar era.

Germany took two cautious steps toward dealing more openly with its military history Tuesday, overturning Nazi-era treason convictions and honouring soldiers who died during the postwar era.

More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, Germany's parliament unanimously overturned Nazi-era verdicts convicting people of treason.

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.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, shown at an EU summit in Brussels in March, threw her support behind a movement to overturn Nazi-era treason convictions. ((Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press))

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

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

Before Tuesday's blanket ruling, challenges to treason convictions had to be handled on an individual basis, with a prosecutor weighing whether each one should be overturned.

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

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.

"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 the Second World War, but tens of thousands of Germans were sentenced to death for desertion, troop demoralization or treason.

Postwar military memorial

Separately, Germany took another cautious step in acknowledging its history when the German president inaugurated the first national memorial to soldiers killed serving in the postwar military.

President Horst Koehler acknowledged the military's changing role as Germany has put soldiers in the line of fire in places such as Afghanistan. In doing so, he lauded the army as a solid pillar of the country's modern democracy and highlighted the sharp contrast between the Bundeswehr and the military of Germany's Nazi past.

The Bundeswehr was founded in 1955, serving first as West Germany's military and, from 1990, as that of reunited Germany — which has emerged gradually from its postwar diplomatic and military shell.

'We restore the honour and dignity of a long-forgotten group of victims of the Nazi justice system.'—German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries

"Our soldiers who have lost their lives on deployment did not die as conquerors or occupiers, but in order to make possible help, protection and reconstruction," Koehler said as he inaugurated the rectangular memorial alongside Germany's defence minister and Catholic and Protestant bishops at the Defence Ministry in Berlin.

Postwar Germany has generally been uncomfortable with militarism and war. However, the memorial has attracted little criticism — although some opposition politicians argued it should be placed outside parliament, which approves Bundeswehr missions.

The monument, he said, "reminds us that our Bundeswehr is an irremovable part of our country's good democratic development, and that our soldiers are people from the middle of society."

The memorial, with the inscription "To the dead of our Bundeswehr: for peace, law and freedom," was designed by German architect Andreas Meck. The 10-metre-high structure, with a perforated metal facade, includes a "room of silence" as a place of mourning; and fallen soldiers' names will be displayed.

The military says some 3,100 soldiers and civilian employees have died in the service of the Bundeswehr since its inception.

Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said he was inspired to push for the memorial when he saw an improvised monument built by German soldiers in Kabul to fallen comrades in 2005. He said it is "our patriotic duty to remember in dignity" modern Germany's dead.

"We are aware that soldiers' deaths have often been misused in the past for propaganda ... particularly in Germany," Koehler said. "But the Bundeswehr memorial pursues no wrongful hero worship, it serves no cult of victimhood and glorifies no war."

The modern Germany's military presence has expanded considerably in recent years.

In 1992, then-chancellor Helmut Kohl broke a taboo against sending troops abroad by deploying military medics to support a UN mission in Cambodia.

Today, the country has nearly 7,500 troops abroad — more than 4,200 in Afghanistan and 2,000 in Kosovo. Smaller contingents are deployed in Bosnia, in anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

With files from The Associated Press