Forty years after war, Bonn invalidates verdicts of Hitler's courts

In this 40th anniversary year after World War II, West Germany has quietly expunged a last residue of Nazi Germany. The Bundestag voted unanimously Jan. 25 to invalidate all the verdicts of the notorious People's Courts. Surprisingly, given the controversy that this issue has roused in the past, there were no dissenting charges from conservatives that such a move would be ``fouling one's own nest.''

Despite what is now generally regarded as ``judicial murder'' of some 7,000 victims by Hitler's courts, no judge from the People's Courts has ever been convicted and had the conviction upheld in West Germany. On the contrary, many of the Hitler-era judges continued to hold official judicial positions in West Germany for decades after the war.

Now the Bundestag has nullified all People's Court verdicts, however, on the grounds that this institution was no impartial court but ``an instrument of terror for carrying out arbitrary National Socialist [Nazi] rule.''

The issue is now a moral rather than a practical one; virtually all of the People's Court judges have retired or died.

On the same day the current West German courts once again repudiated neo-Nazism in sentencing 29-year-old Michael K"uhnen, probably the country's most voluble neo-Nazi, to 31/3 years imprisonment for spreading propaganda for unconstitutional organizations.

Some other reminders of the past are proving harder to eradicate for West Germany -- and even more so for Austria. A few days ago, when Italy released early from jail the last Nazi convicted for massacring civilians in World War II, the ex-prisoner and ex-SS Maj. Walter Reder was met personally on his arrival in Austria by the Austrian defense minister.

Such a gesture would be unthinkable in West Germany -- and would certainly lead to the resignation of any defense minister who made it. In Austria, however -- which has glossed over the high Austrian participation in Hitler's infamous SS and has preferred to see itself more as a victim than an accomplice of Hitler's aggression -- there is not the same public revulsion toward old Nazis. Defense Minister Friedhelm Frischenschlager has so far gotten off with no more than a reprimand from Austrian Chancellor Fred Sinowatz.

In West Germany echoes of the past also came back to haunt the present in an article by a 2l-year-old in late January suggesting that the West German Army could reunify Germany by marching through Czechoslovakia and Poland. The East European populations would basically welcome thetroops as liberators, the author wrote in a fictional account in tones reminiscent of the 1930s buildup to Hitler's attack on Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The outrage was immediate in West Germany. A government spokesman called the article ``irresponsible, injurious, and silly.'' The conservative Christian Democrats and the Silesian League both expelled the author, Thomas Finke, from their ranks.

The leader of the adult Silesian League, Herbert Hupka, also distanced himself from the article in the League's official organ, The Silesian. He was far less vigorous in renouncing the sentiments of the article, however, than in denouncing those who condemned the article and associated it with Silesians in general. He especially criticized Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who constantly responds to the ambiguous Silesian German claims on Silesia by stressing that Bonn stands by its 1970 treaty with Warsaw respecting the Polish borders.

The Silesians are ethnic Germans who were expelled in 1945 from territory that was part of Hitler's Third Reich but became western Poland after the war. They and the other 10 or 11 million ``expellees'' in West Germany (counting children and grandchildren born here) form a right-wing lobby that has gained new prominence in the past year under conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Their repeated declarations that the German borders of 1937 are still valid provide the evidence that Moscow cites in accusing the West Germans of ``revanchism,'' i.e., seeking to roll back the Soviet-bloc borders.

After he became chancellor 21/2 years ago, Dr. Kohl became the first chancellor to address expellee conventions in a decade and a half. He is scheduled to do so again this summer, even though he warned Dr. Hupka in a letter not to ``stir up emotions'' and provide cause for ``misunderstanding.''

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