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Fri Jan 20, 2012, 04:22 AM

How Postwar Germany Let War Criminals Go Free

How Postwar Germany Let War Criminals Go Free

The German occupiers wanted to avenge an attack that communist partisans had carried out a day earlier on a German police unit in Rome's Via Rasella. The victims of this retaliatory act were chosen at random. Most of them had been imprisoned in a Gestapo jail in the Italian capital or were being detained by the Wehrmacht, Germany's Nazi-era military. None of them had been involved in the attack.

Damning Documents Discovered in Berlin

The documents entail an exchange of letters begun in 1959 between officials at the German Embassy in Rome and their counterparts at the Foreign Ministry in Bonn, Germany's capital at the time. With unprecedented clarity, the documents testify to how German diplomats and Italian officials cooperated in shielding the soldiers in Kappler's charge from criminal prosecution. As embassy adviser Kurt von Tannstein put it, the goal was a "putting (the affair) to rest, as desired by both the German and Italian side."

Agreeing to Sweep the Matter under the Rug

In the case of the Ardeatine Caves, the initiative came from the Italian government. Their initial attempts to see that the German crimes wouldn't go unpunished were abandoned early. Many of the perpetrators were living in postwar Germany, and the Christian Democrats ruling in Rome were hoping to avoid having to make any extradition requests. As one leading diplomat in Rome warned: "On the day that the first German criminal is extradited, there will be a wave of protests in countries that are demanding the extradition of Italian criminals." After all, Italy had sided with Nazi Germany until 1943 and occupied parts of the Balkans, where hundreds of thousands of people fell victim to the Italians' reign of violence.

Willful Blindness, Feigned Ignorance

Klaiber's sympathy for the perpetrators was typical of the early days of new, postwar Germany. Only later, as SPIEGEL reported in 1968, did it emerge that Gawlik took advantage of his position in the Foreign Ministry to warn former Nazis against traveling abroad should they have been convicted in absentia in their destination countries and were thus at risk of arrest.

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