The trial of an 88-year-old former Nazi SS soldier, who has admitted gunning down three Dutch resistance fighters in 1944, has had a halting start in one of Germany’s last Nazi war crimes cases.
The trial, in the western city of Aachen, was adjourned shortly after it started, however, when the defence team of the accused, Heinrich Boere, demanded the public prosecutor be replaced. It will resume on Monday.
Dutch-born Boere appeared in the courtroom confined to a wheelchair, wearing glasses with his grey hair cropped short. He was inattentive and appeared somewhat lethargic during the proceedings.
Boere has already confessed several times to the slayings in the Dutch towns of Breda, Voorschoten and Wassenaar, saying he was following orders.
“Yes, I got rid of them,” he told Focus magazine last year. “It was not difficult. You just had to bend a finger.”
He told Spiegel magazine two years ago that they were told they were killing “terrorists”, adding: “We thought we were doing the right thing.”
There was a brief moment of courtroom drama as two suspected neo-Nazis entered the viewing gallery, prompting chants of “Nazis out” and “Facists get out of here.”
The accused, who is on the list of the top ten most wanted Nazis drawn up by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, was part of an SS hit squad codenamed “Silver Pine” that hunted and executed Dutch resistance fighters.
He faces life behind bars if convicted.
The son of one of the trio killed, 76-year-old Teun de Groot, who was in court as a co-plaintiff, expressed his relief that the trial had now begun. “Today I have achieved what I have been hoping for for many years,” he said.
The head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff, said the trial was “a very strong signal that the passing of time does not diminish the guilt of the criminal and that someone who murdered innocent civilians should not be protected because he is old.”
Zuroff also praised the “determination” of the prosecutors in this case.
A historian at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, Edith Raim, also disputed that Germany had been negligent in its pursuit of Nazi war criminals.
“Since 1945, there has not been a single year where there was not some sort of investigation of Nazi cases. I think that Germany has really been conscious of its responsibilities,” she told journalists on the eve of the trial.
Boere, who previously worked as a miner, now suffers from a litany of health problems and lives in a nursing home near Aachen.
His lawyer, Gordon Christiansen, told the Aachener Nachrichten newspaper: “It is entirely possible that my client will have a heart attack in court.”
Boere’s trial follows decades of legal wrangling between Germany and the Netherlands over how to deal with his alleged crimes.
He was sentenced to death in absentia by a special post-war tribunal in Amsterdam after he had fled to Germany. This sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
However, Boere remained a free man as Germany refused to extradite him, saying it was unable to determine if he was German or stateless. Germany does not extradite its citizens to stand trial in other countries.
A total of 13 hearings have been scheduled, with a verdict expected on December 18. However, experts believe the trial will in fact last much longer, given Boere’s state of health and the likelihood of repeated adjournments.
The proceedings will likely coincide with another high-profile war crimes trial — that of 89-year-old John Demjanjuk, who is accused of herding 27,900 Jews to the gas chambers at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
That trial begins on November 30.