It is part of society's obligation to the victims to make a serious effort to hold Nazi criminals such as Heinrich Boere to account
There no doubt are many people who wonder whether the conviction this past week in Germany of 88-year-old Heinrich Boere for Nazi crimes committed during the second world war serves any useful purpose. They can point to the fact that more than 60 years have passed since he committed his crimes and that he was not a mass murderer, the likes of those who helped run the death camps or served in the infamous Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units. But a closer look at his case will show why his prosecution and conviction in Aachen were, indeed, justified and the life sentence he received so important.
A resident of Maastricht, Netherlands, Boere, the son of a Dutch father and a German mother, volunteered to serve in the Waffen-SS shortly after the Nazis occupied Holland. After service on the eastern front he returned home, where he voluntarily joined Sonderkommando Feldmeijer, a unit whose primary function was the murder of members of the Dutch resistance and those opposed to the Nazis. In the course of Operation Silbertanne (silver fir tree), at least 54 individuals were killed, three of whom Boere admitted shooting to death – Fritz Bicknese, Teun de Groot and FW Kusters.
After the war, Boere escaped to Germany for fear of prosecution – and, in fact, was sentenced to death in absentia by a Dutch court in 1949 for the three murders. Holland asked for his extradition from Germany, but he was the beneficiary of the Fuhrererlass, a law promulgated by Hitler granting German citizenship to foreign Nazi collaborators. Since Germany refused in principle to extradite its citizens to stand trial in other countries, Boere had no reason to fear the Dutch court. He could, in theory, have been prosecuted in Germany, but for more than five decades that was not the case. In this respect, he was spared by the unofficial local prosecution policy on Nazi war criminals, which usually refrained from prosecuting individuals who were not officers, even if they had personally committed murder.
About two years ago, however, the state attorneys in Dortmund, headed by Ulrich Maas, announced that they would seek to prosecute Boere and they successfully contested a decision that he was not fit for trial. And thus, in November 2009, the Dutch executioner found himself in a German court facing the charges which he had escaped for more than 60 years.
Boere's conviction and life sentence are therefore more than justified, but they are also highly significant for several additional reasons. The first is that the Boere case is a precedent for Germany, where there are other instances of foreign Nazi collaborators who escaped from their countries of origin for fear of prosecution and who have hereto never faced legal action in Germany. The most famous of these cases are those of a Dutchman, Klaas Carl Faber, and a Dane, Søren Kam. The former, like Boere, served in Sonderkommando Feldmeijer and was sentenced to death in Holland in 1947 for the murder of at least 11 individuals. In 1952, he escaped from a Dutch prison to Germany, which has refused all requests for his extradition and has so far failed to bring him to justice. The latter, who is accused of murdering Carl Clemmensen, a Danish anti-Nazi newspaper editor, also escaped to Germany and was treated in the same manner. Thus Boere's conviction will hopefully serve as a precedent which will be applied in additional cases.
Several more personal factors specific to the Boere case add to its significance. The first is that he never expressed true regret for his crimes. On the contrary, at his trial, he said openly that he was very proud to have been accepted as a volunteer for the Waffen-SS and that during the war, at no time did he ever feel he had committed any crimes. His defence of coercion based on "superior orders" was totally rejected by the court. In that respect, it was the son of his victim Teun de Groot (the oldest of 12 children who has the same name as his father), who astutely remarked to reporters that if Boere had truly been sorry for the murders he committed, he should have returned to Holland to face justice and serve his punishment.
The presence in the courtroom in Aachen of children of Boere's victims was also an opportunity to learn first hand of the devastating impact of his crimes on the families of those murdered. And their insistence that he be tried despite his age reinforces the significance of justice, even when long delayed, as part of the obligations of society to the Nazis' victims to make a serious effort to hold Holocaust perpetrators accountable. This elementary truth and the successful result of the proceeding send a powerful message that the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice are still very worthwhile and just as necessary today as they have been in previous generations.
Efraim Zuroff - Comment is free