The court in the southern city of Munich convicted Josef Scheungraber for the deaths of 10 people in a mass killing that ultimately claimed the lives of 14 residents of Falzano di Cortona in Tuscany.
Descendants of the victims sat in the courtroom as the verdict was read, embracing and brushing back each other’s tears as they heard the sentence.
The Nazi troops gunned down a 74-year-old woman and three men in the street on June 26, 1944, with Allied troops just a few kilometres away. The soldiers then forced 11 males aged between 15 and 66 into the ground floor of a farmhouse which they then blew up. Only the youngest, Gino Massetti, survived, but with serious injuries. Six decades later and an old man himself, Massetti testified during a previous trial in Italy.
“Josef Scheungraber was the only officer in the company” of soldiers who carried out the murders in retaliation for an attack by Italian partisans that killed two German soldiers, presiding judge Manfred Goetzl said.
Scheungraber, who was the commander of Gebirgs-Pionier-Bataillon 818, a mountain infantry battalion, had been charged with 14 counts of murder and one of attempted murder. He was convicted of 10 murders – for the killings in the farmhouse – but
acquitted over the shootings due to a lack of evidence.
“They were without any doubt civilians, farmers and the sons of farmers,” Goetzl said, adding that the German soldiers had been driven by “vengeance, hate and rage against partisans who killed two of their soldiers.”
Scheungraber, dressed in a traditional Bavarian jacket, is hard of hearing and walks with a cane but appeared alert and in good health as he listened to the verdict against him.
“This is a very important judgement for our families and for our loved ones who cannot be here,” said Angiola Lescai, 60, who lost a grandfather and an uncle in the massacre. “It also sends a message for the future – that certain things must not be allowed to happen and in the end, when they do, someone bears personal responsibility.”
“For 65 years, we have been waiting for truth and justice,” Mayor Andrea Vignini said earlier, adding that many of the victims’ families had moved away from the town because they could not bear the memories of the massacre.
The prosecution had demanded a life sentence for Scheungraber, who had spent the decades since the war in the sleepy Bavarian town of Ottobrunn, running a woodworking shop and taking part in marches in memory of fallen Nazi soldiers.
His defence attorneys called for his acquittal, citing contradictions in witness testimony 65 years on. They said they would appeal the sentence, which will likely only be heard next year. Until then, Scheuengraber will remain a free man.
The chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, Efraim Zuroff, underlined the importance of such trials, even decades after the war. “The victims of Falzano di Cortona are just as deserving today that their killers be punished as they were in 1944,” he said in a statement.
Scheungraber had pleaded his innocence throughout the 11-month trial, telling the Munich court that he handed the 11 males over to the military police, after which he “never heard what happened to them.”
He had been sentenced in absentia in September 2006 to life imprisonment by an Italian military tribunal in La Spezia. The La Spezia court has tried several former Nazis in absentia but none had been brought to justice, with Germany as a rule not extraditing its citizens without their consent.
His trial was expected to be one of the last cases in Germany dealing with atrocities of the Nazi era.
One other case pending is that of John Demjanjuk, a 89-year-old Nazi death camp guard deported in May from the United States who has been charged with accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews. Last month he was declared fit to stand trial.