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Germany: Parliament Plans To Rehabilitate Deserters

Munich, 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than 50 years after the end of the War, Germany's Parliament is preparing to rehabilitate many of those executed or jailed for deserting from the army, or who refused to serve for reasons of conscience.

The Legal Committee of Parliament agreed this week to prepare a bill rehabilitating the victims, and offering a one-time payment of DM 7,500 (about $5,000) to about 300 survivors and widows still living in Germany. The decision won the unanimous support of both Governnment and opposition members of the Legal Committee.

A Parliament spokesman today tells RFE/RL that more than 20,000 Germans were executed, and around 10,000 imprisoned for desertion or for refusing to serve, or on the general charge of "undermining military potential." It is that around 200 survivors are still living in Germany, as are about 100 widows of those hanged or shot.

This week's decision by the Parliament's Legal Committee follows years of often-emotional argument. The opposition Social Democratic Party and human rights groups originally proposed a blanket rehabilitation of all those sentenced to death or to prison by what they considered the "terrorist" Nazi courts. This was rejected by the Christian Democrat Government, led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which argued that many deserters had committed crimes and fled the army to avoid punishment.

This week's agreement was reached after the opposition accepted several compromises. The final version says that rehabiliation will not be available for deserters who committed offences, which would still be considered crimes under today's democratic system. Officials say this covers crimes such as robbery for personal profit. It was unclear who will decide on individual cases if there is a protest.

Despite the agreement in the Legal Committee, the bill still has several hurdles to overcome. Critics note that the Christian Democratic Government will not order its deputies to vote in favor. Instead, they will be allowed what is called a "free vote" -- that is, they can vote for or against, according to their own conscience.

This is partly because Germans are sensitive about the army's role in World War Two. Many prefer to believe that - while the S.S., the Gestapo and other arms of the Nazi regime committed horrifying crimes - the army was concerned only with fighting a war and, with some exceptions, was not involved in crimes.

For this reason, the agreement reached in the Legal Committee contains a special reference to the honor of the army. This was inserted at the insistence of the Government. It says that the rehabilitation of deserters "does not imply a lowering of the status of the German soldier in the Second World War," and adds that courage and a patriotic love for the Fatherland were subject to abuse. The statement also makes a point that the modern German army is different from the war-time forces. Soldiers of the modern army are forbidden to follow criminal orders.

The sensitivity over the army's role expressed in these statements explains the nation-wide controversy over an exhibition of war-time photographs now touring Germany. They show German soldiers participating in war crimes in Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkans. Conservatives and rightwingers claim that it "insults" the memory of the war-time army and their relatives.

More than 86,000 people visited the exhibition in Munich before it closed earlier this month. Among them was a woman who recognised her own father helping in the hanging of a young woman in Minsk.

The exhibition is now on display in Frankfurt, where it has aroused further controversy, and is going on to other cities. The controversy has led to calls from some political groups for a debate in Parliament over the role of the army in the War. But most commentators believe it is still too divisive a subject for that.