For only the second time in West German history a Hitler-era judge has been indicted on charges of judicial murder. Last month West Berlin prosecutors charged 82-year-old Paul Reimers with handing down 97 unjustified death sentences from the bench of Nazi Germany's infamous People's Court. The almost 900-page indictment is based on five years of investigation and poring over documents, including some 6,000 pages made available for the first time from East German archives.
It is doubtful whether Mr. Reimers will ever come to trial. He, his wife, and their 19-year-old son disappeared from the family home in Bremen a few days before the indictment was made public. There is speculation Reimers has gone to one of several countries that would not extradite him. As further insurance, he is said to have a certificate from his personal physician attesting to his incompetence to stand trial.
Welcoming the indictment nonetheless, Robert Kempner, a deputy American prosecutor in the Nuremberg trial, said, ''It's less a question of punishment than of finally branding the big shots and not just the last 'little' Gestapo man.''
Mr. Kempner and other critics have long thought it a scandal that judges who condemned some 7,000 victims to death between 1942 and 1945 in trials devoid of the most elementary standards of evidence and impartiality have gone scot-free since the fall of the Third Reich.
West Germany did begin prosecuting Nazi-era concentration camp officials and guards after the shock of the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960 s. It has only taken one of the notorious Nazi judges to court, however, and this one, Hans Joachim Rehse, although he was convicted by a lower court in 1966 , was acquitted on appeal in 1968 by the Federal Supreme Court.
Grounds for the acquittal were that judges could not be tried by a successor government for carrying out a completely different system of justice of a previous government. After the Rehse acquittal all other cases against People's Court judges were dropped.
The new indictment of Reimers makes it clear that the Berlin prosecutors do not accept the Supreme Court's perception of Hitler's People's Court. They argue that this was no ordinary court, but rather a ''dummy court with only the cloak of justice,'' established ''to regulate the killing of political enemies.''
In establishing the People's Court the Fuhrer enjoined judges to practice ''ruthlessly hard, brutal justice'' against ''antisocial parasites.''
According to the most respected historian who has written about the period, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Hitler gave himself the title of ''supreme judge,'' required oaths of personal loyalty to him from judges, and repeatedly fired judges who gave what he considered too lenient sentences or verdicts that did not conform to Nazi interests.
The negative publicity about the People's Court in the mid-1960s, even if it did not lead to prison terms for these judges, did at least accelerate the early retirement of many of them, including Reimers. Before that, Third Reich judges had continued service unchallenged in the new West German courts. After retirement they all received comfortable state pensions.
Out of some 560 People's Court judges and prosecutors responsible for political death sentences in the years when the Third Reich was finally losing the war, only 60 are still alive today. Berlin prosecutors are continuing investigation of more than 40 of these, with the intent of bringing further indictments.
In the past West German courts have refused to repudiate People's Court sentences not only in the case of judges but also in instances where relatives of those condemned to death have sued to clear the name of persons executed. In all such cases the West German courts have maintained their own lack of competence to adjudicate.