German prosecutors have charged an 88-year-old former member of Hitler’s elite Waffen SS with taking part in a World War II massacre of hundreds of French villagers, nearly 70 years after one of the most infamous Nazi atrocities.
In the methodical June 1944 slaughter, SS soldiers took the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane in central France by surprise and killed nearly all its inhabitants within a few hours. They killed 642 men, women and children.
The men were herded into barns and shot dead while the women and children were burned alive in the village church.
“The prosecution charges an 88-year-old pensioner from Cologne with [joining in] the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane in France,” Cologne court spokesman Achim Hengstenberg said. “He and another shooter are said to have killed 25 men in a barn with his machinegun. He is also said to have aided the burning down of the village church.”
The accused denies the charges, saying he did not fire a single shot in Oradour, according to his lawyer Rainer Pohlen.
He even said he tried to save the lives of some.
“He could have fired. He says, however, ‘I had the great luck of being deployed for something else,’” Pohlen said. “He said: ‘I heard shots, I saw people shouting, I saw the village burning. It was terrible. It was absolutely awful. But I was not myself involved in any of the action.’”
Hengstenberg said the charge was filed with the young offenders chamber of the Cologne court and not named because the suspect was only 19 years old at the time of the crime.
The chamber will decide whether to open proceedings against the accused.
The SS unit decided to wipe Oradour-sur-Glane off the map as an example to French Resistance guerrillas after a vehicle carrying an SS doctor was ambushed on a road leading to the village and its occupants abducted.
Among those killed were 207 children, the youngest eight weeks old. Only five men and a woman survived the massacre.
“It’s important that we find someone even if it’s 70 years afterwards,” Robert Hebras, one of the six survivors, told French broadcaster BFM TV.
Also on Wednesday, a court in Hagen, Germany, dismissed a case against a 92-year-old former SS member accused of killing a Dutch resistance fighter in September 1944, citing a loss of evidence.
Judge Heike Hartmann-Garschagen ruled after four months of hearings that because crucial evidence had been lost since the killing and key testimony was unavailable, it had been impossible to convict Siert Bruins, a German national, of murder.
She determined that the evidence presented at the trial pointed to manslaughter, which is covered by a statute of limitations.
The ruling falls short of a formal acquittal, but means that Bruins can leave court a free man. Chief prosecutor Andreas Bendel said his team would consider filing an appeal.
Additional reporting by AFP