Josef Scheungraber, then the commander of a German mountain infantry battalion, is accused of ordering the killing of 14 civilians in the Tuscan village of Falzano near Cortona on June 26, 1944. The massacre was allegedly in retaliation for an attack by Italian partisans that left two German soldiers dead.
The trial before a jury in the southern city of Munich comes at the end of a long legal odyssey that has provoked outrage among victims' groups. The accused has lived for decades as a free man in Ottobrunn outside Munich, where he has served on the town council, run a furniture shop and regularly attended marches with fellow wartime veterans. He was sentenced in absentia in September 2006 to life imprisonment by an Italian military tribunal in La Spezia.
But Germany as a rule does not extradite its citizens without their consent and has not received a formal request from Italy to jail him here. Scheungraber denies the charges.
The charge sheet describing the alleged actions of a notorious German unit in the tiny Italian farming community paints a chilling picture. The troops are alleged to have first shot dead a 74-year-old woman and three men in the street before cramming 11 others into the ground floor of a farmhouse which they then blew up.
A 15-year-old boy, Gino Massetti, survived seriously injured and—more than six decades later—testified during the Italian trial. Massetti, now 79, has told the German press that he has no desire to exact vengeance.
“I just want to forget those horrible moments,” he said. Due to his advanced age, Scheungraber has not been jailed pending his trial and will only be asked to testify for a few hours at a time. The Italian military tribunal at La Spezia has tried several other former Nazis for crimes committed in Italy during World War Two. In 2005 it handed life sentences to 10 elderly former SS soldiers for the massacre of 560 Italian civilians including 120 children in 1944 in the Tuscan town of Sant'Anna di Stazzema.
At least two of the Germans have died since then. Another two received the same sentence in September 2006 for the massacre of 14 civilians in Falzano di Cortona and 10 others in January 2007 for a bloodbath in Marzabotto that left 955 dead.
A German network called “Keine Ruhe!” (“No Peace!”) has rallied against allowing the men to live out their twilight years unperturbed and demanded long-delayed justice for the senior citizens.
“There is a very strong tendency toward maintaining the silence,” the group charges.
Ulrich Sander of the Association of Victims of Nazism/Federation of Antifascists welcomed the decision to put Scheungraber on trial as a “success”. But he said that while Germany actively tended to the memory of victims of Nazi war crimes, it seemed to have much less interest in bringing the last of the criminals to justice.
“We are disappointed that the ruling handed down in Italy was not carried out by the German state,” he told AFP, referring to Scheungraber's case.