Germany struggles to stop Nazi war payment suspicions

A Belgian bid to stop Berlin from paying pensions to alleged Nazi collaborators has exposed a cloud of confusion and suspicion - including in Germany - over payments still made to 2,000 people worldwide.

Germany struggles to stop Nazi war payment suspicions
An anti-Nazi protest in Rostock, Germany, held in 2018. Photo: DPA

The controversial law in question is known innocuously as the Federal German War Victims' Assistance Act, or the “Bundesversorgungsgesetz”, but tabloid-style Bild daily calls it “Hitler's pensions”.

The debate surrounding the law exploded again on February 20th when the
Belgian parliament voted on a resolution calling for the end of such payments to 18 people in the country.

SEE ALSO: Germany making disputed Nazi war payments to over 2,000 people

The outcry was the latest surrounding the state payments, which over the
decades have been believed to have benefited not just Nazi collaborators but even Waffen SS soldiers.

Today, Germany doles out a total of €787,740 every month to 2,033 people under the little known law that came into force in 1950, labour ministry data showed.

The law defines “war victims” as individuals who suffered health problems
from military or related service or internment during World War II.

They can “be former Wehrmacht (regular army) soldiers as well as civilian
war victims, for example those injured in a bomb blast or shell bombardment”, a ministry spokesman told AFP.

The spokesman stressed however that the funds are not payments for service in the Wehrmacht or in the Waffen SS.

Anyone convicted of war crimes is ineligible to receive the payments.

Nonetheless, critics have repeatedly warned over the decades that some of
the pensions have indeed gone to individuals who should have been excluded.

Money for SS veterans

A first uproar over the fund erupted as early as 1955 when news weekly Der Spiegel reported that among the beneficiaries was Lina Heydrich, widow of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust.

In the 1990s, a report by public broadcaster ARD found that more than 100
SS veterans in Latvia were receiving regular payments.

Finally, in 1998, an amendment was passed that allowed Germany to reject those who committed crimes against humanity during the Nazi era.

SEE ALSO: Lawmakers call for end of pension payments to Nazi collaborators

But that change only affected beneficiaries who applied for the payments
after 1997.

As a result of the reform, 99 individuals were stripped of their payments.

That is however just a small percentage of the more than 70,000 names which the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center considered suspicious, according to a list it handed to German authorities years ago.

In a joint study published in November 2016, the labour ministry and the
Simon Wiesenthal Center noted the big discrepancy in the numbers.

They also acknowledged that, among other shortcomings, there was a lack of material and personnel resources to thoroughly investigate beneficiaries'

The labour ministry says it does not have a definitive figure today of how
many beneficiaries there have been since 1950.

It adds that because of data protection rules it cannot reveal the identities or profiles of the recipients.

The country with the most individuals drawing the funds today is Poland
with 573 beneficiaries.

The German embassy in Warsaw insisted that “nobody who has been convicted of a crime or a war crime would be able to receive this money”.

Other European countries with significant numbers of beneficiaries include
Slovenia with 184, Austria with 101 and Croatia with 71.

In the Americas, 250 beneficiaries live in the United States and 121 in Canada.

With the disputed payments now back in the spotlight, Nazi hunter Serge
Klarsfeld voiced shock that “democratic Germany should show itsrecognition for those who fought in the Nazi army”.

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.