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Pope Visits Germany To Beatify Nazi Victims

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, June 19 (RFE/RL) - This week's visit to Germany by Pope John Paul II has reopened discussions about the role of Germany's judges during the Nazi period.

During his visit (begins Friday), the pope will beatify two German priests who died after ill treatment in Nazi concentration camps and prisons.

The question being asked is whether the judges who sentenced them and others opposed to Nazi policies acted with the honesty and impartiality required by their profession or whether they simply followed Nazi dictates.

In particular, commentators in newspapers and magazines are asking how it happened that many of the judges who sentenced Germans to death under the Nazi system were allowed to stay in legal work after the transition to democracy. Some were allowed to continue as judges.

Postwar governments, including the present one, are also criticised for not declaring void the convictions and death sentences of those executed for denouncing the Nazis.

The Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung" described it as a "glaring failure" of postwar Germany. The explanation usually offered is that the convictions were legal under the laws of the day.

One of those to be beatified by the pope is Karl Leisner, a theological student who was consecrated a priest in the Dachau concentration camp and died soon after its liberation in 1945. The other is Bernhard Lichtenberg, who was the administrator of the Berlin diocese. He died in 1943 on his way to Dachau after two years imprisonment in Berlin for denouncing the murder of the mentally ill and for offering public prayers for persecuted Jews.

It is the Lichtenberg case which has prompted a number of German newspapers to publish thoughtful articles about the role of the judges who supervised his trial. His case is also discussed in a book "("Priests Before Hitler's Courts") about the hundreds of German priests persecuted for opposed the Nazis.

First published in 1967, a new edition was issued this week to coincide with the Pope's visit. The author is the late Benedicta Maria Kempner, wife of the U.S. deputy prosector at the Nuremburg war crimes trials, who collected about 4,000 cases although there are only 130 in the present book. She died in 1982.

Lichtenberg, who was a military priest in World War 1, first displeased the Nazis with his support for the French anti-war book and film "All Quiet on the Western Front". Then in 1936 he publicised the mistreatment and murder of prisoners in concentration camps and wrote directly to Hermann Goering about specific cases.

In 1938, after the "Crystal Night" destruction of synagogues, he prayed publicly for Jews and in a line which became famous in Germany said: "Outside a Temple is burning. That is also a House of God". In 1941 he publicised the euthanasia program of killing cripples, the old and the sick.

Bernhard Lichtenberg was sentenced by a Berlin court in May 1942 to two years imprisonment. After completing the sentence he was kept in detention at the judge's recommendation and was sentenced to Dachau concentration camp but died on the way there..

The records of the Lichtenberg trial still exist in the legal archives in Berlin. The sentence remains valid today. The records identify the chief judge as a Dr. Boeckmann, the associate judges as a Dr Herfurth and a Dr. Hinke and the prosecutor as a Dr. Nuthmann.

The Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung" said this week that they had " acted as interpreters of National-Socialist ideology."

The records show that in pronouncing sentence the judges followed the prosecutor's arguments that Lichtenberg knew his comments could cause dissension. "He knew that the words chosen by him -- for example, the poor prisoners in the cencontration camps -- would arouse dissension among his audience against the state's actions and lead to a threat to the public peace."

The judges also condemned Lichtenberg for criticising Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and the Nazi party for an anti-semitic pamphlet. He described it as unchristian and urged Germans to honor the Commands of Christ. His comments were described by the judges as "damaging the people's trust in the political leadership".

The judges declared he wanted to incite the public to disobey the guidelines in the pamphlet on the way Germans should treat Jews. Lichtenberg's statement was shown only to some fellow priests, but the court declared he should have known that it would eventually become public.

The judges sentenced Lichtenberg not only to jail but also recommended that after his sentence was completed he should be handed-over to the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp. The court said that "because of his age (he was 67) and the fanaticism for his cause, it cannot be expected that he can be reformed".

After the war all those involved in prosecuting the case remained in the legal business and one of the associate judges (Dr. Hinke) was again appointed a judge at a Berlin court.

A report in the "Suddeutsche Zeitung" this week concluded by saying: "when Pope John Paul, in the public spotlight, beatifies Bernhard Lichtenberg, the role played by the legal authorities in his fate should not be overlooked". It noted that the sentence against Lichtenberg remains valid today -- it has not been lifted.