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Sunday, 8 February 2009

"At some point there has to be peace"

It is not up to me, I understand how it would be presumptuous.
But the man quoted here ?

He has some standing. At some point, if humanity is to survive there has to be forgiveness, and acknowledgement of our mutual failings, and mutual love.

The paper next to the courtroom door announced the charge for the day’s hearing in tiny type that hardly seemed equal to its gravity. “Mord,” it read in German. Murder.

The accused waited with his lawyer, standing unsteadily, gripping a crutch with one arm. Josef Scheungraber, 90, is charged in the deaths of 14 Italian civilians in June 1944, when he was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He is an accused war criminal, called to account more than six decades later.

The crimes against humanity committed under the Nazi regime remain the issue that refuses to go away here, and every time it seems to be sinking out of view it breaks through the surface again. I had just driven from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where I was researching an article about Dr. Aribert Heim, a Nazi doctor who allegedly murdered hundreds of people, most of them Jews, through poison injections directly to the heart and surgery that would better be described as butchery.

My colleagues and I found that Dr. Heim’s flight from justice ended with his death in 1992 in Cairo, where he had lived, hidden from Nazi hunters, as a Muslim convert. He would never face his accusers in court, as Mr. Scheungraber now must.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Scheungraber ordered the shooting of three Italian men and a 74-year-old woman, then ordered that 11 more civilians be forced into a barn, which was blown up. Ten of the 11 died. Mr. Scheungraber has been convicted in absentia in Italy but has testified here that he was rebuilding a nearby bridge when the civilians were killed, and that he had nothing to do with the order to kill civilians as revenge for an attack by Italian partisans.

The trial has played out quietly, largely out of the glare. A war-crimes trial evokes images of packed benches and the strobe of flashbulbs, but on this recent morning fewer than 15 people waited to watch the proceedings. I went not because it was a news story but because I wanted to hear what Germans thought about the continuing process, at a point when some of the accused criminals from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, like Slobodan Milosevic, have already passed away from natural causes.

“We have to remember,” said Manfred Wenzel, 71, resolutely, before wavering and adding, “although I’m not sure these people should be pursued anymore.” He sighed and concluded, “At some point there has to be peace.”

Mr. Wenzel seemed much happier describing a story in keeping with the European Union’s recent reign of open borders, rather than dwelling on the continent’s darkest years. “The son of one of the Italian witnesses actually married a German and they coincidentally live right here in Munich,” Mr. Wenzel said. “He showed no resentment at all.”

I first moved to Germany as a student in 1995, and was amazed to find a country so ready not only to embrace its guilt for long-ago crimes, but to discuss it, research it and commemorate it with unusual diligence. But lately I have noticed a shift. When the Nazi era comes up in interviews, people plead to me with their eyes to let it drop. There are fewer discussions and more awkward silences.

Increasingly, I get the sense that many Germans would like to move on. Not forget, but move on.

I remember hearing a homily in Detroit from a Catholic priest who had recently returned from a trip to Ireland.
What began as a paean to the faith of the Irish people in the face of adversity became a diatribe against a man he obviously hated.

Oliver Cromwell.

And yet this priest was certainly less than four hundred years old.

I don't feel Cromwell's descendants, corporate or genetic, owe me. Neither do the Turks. Or the Danes. Or the Russian people.

Do I owe someone for something that happened before I was born, a hundred, two hundred years ago?

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