Sixty-five years after 11 men were massacred in the central Italian village of Falzano Di Cortona, a German court convicted former Nazi soldier Josef Scheungraber of ordering the killings and sentenced him to life in prison. Scheungraber, 90, looked frail but alert as the verdict was read out in the Munich courthouse on Aug. 11, at the close of one of Germany's last Nazi war-crimes trials.
In 1944, near the end of World War II, Scheungraber was a 25-year-old German army officer based in Italy. According to the court, after Italian partisans killed two German soldiers, a mountain infantry battalion set out on a brutal revenge operation with Scheungraber in command. The worst atrocity took place at a farm in the Tuscan village of Falzano Di Cortona in June 1944. The court said Scheungraber ordered his soldiers to round up 11 Italian men, who were herded into a barn and locked inside. The Germans then blew up the barn, leaving only one survivor, a 15-year-old boy named Gino Massetti who gave evidence at the trial.
Scheungraber denies the allegations that he ordered the killings, saying he was rebuilding a nearby bridge at the time. But at the end of an 11-month trial, the court handed down a life sentence, convicting him of 10 counts of murder and one of attempted murder. "This was about revenge," said Judge Manfred Goetzl, adding that Scheungraber was the only officer present at the time of the killings. "He wasn't someone who allowed an important matter to be taken out of his hands."
Relatives of some of the victims had traveled to Germany from Italy to hear the verdict. "This is an important and just verdict for our families," said Angiola Lescai, who lost her grandfather in the barn that June day. "The massacre destroyed our family, and other families were also torn apart ... We think this is a gesture of reconciliation."
After the war, Scheungraber spent decades living a quiet, unassuming life at his home in Ottobrunn, on the outskirts of Munich. He ran a furniture shop, sat on the town council and even won a medal for outstanding citizenship. In 2006 he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison by an Italian military tribunal, but he wasn't deported and never served any time. After German prosecutors got onto the case, Scheungraber went on trial in Munich in September 2008. "The past caught up with the defendant," said prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz after the verdict was delivered on Tuesday. "He will have to atone for his guilt."
The trial was highly challenging for German prosecutors, who struggled to find proof of Scheungraber's involvement in the Italian barn massacre. Given that more than six decades had elapsed, prosecutors had trouble finding living witnesses, and the few witnesses they could find had only sketchy memories of that time. Ultimately, much of the case against Scheungraber was built on documentary evidence and expert-witness statements.
Scheungraber's conviction marks the end of what is likely to be one of Germany's last Nazi war-crimes trials. John Demjanjuk, 89, is currently sitting in a Munich prison awaiting trial, after having been charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews while he was a guard at the Nazi concentration camp Sobibor. No date has been set, but doctors confirmed recently that he's fit to stand trial. It remains to be seen how Demjanjuk's trial will be affected by Tuesday's verdict, which sends a clear signal that the consequences of Nazi crimes do not fade with the passage of time.
For many, this latest judgment has come too late, and Scheungraber's trial has sparked debate in Germany over why prosecutors took so long to press charges. But most Germans are relieved that the pensioner has finally been called to account for the crimes he committed while he was a young soldier. The ruling has symbolic significance in Germany, which feels a collective sense of moral responsibility toward victims of Nazi massacres. Norbert Frei, a historian at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, summed up the nation's mood when he said during an interview with radio station Bayerischer Rundfunk: "Even old age can't protect a person from prosecution."
Scheungraber's lawyer has said he will appeal, dismissing the verdict as "scandalous." And that could take months. So for now, Scheungraber is going back to his home in Ottobrunn to await his fate.