east prussia

  • What is a Nazi war crime?

    Fog in the pine forest
    Crime and punishment (Photo by Filip Zrnzević)

    Below are two little stories within the vast panoply of Nazi war crimes from the Second World War that I wanted to share. Nothing arouses our emotion like the Nazis, and the question of who was good and bad, who was a perpetrator and who a victim.

    Joachim Lieven

    The first is from the late Countess Dönhoff’s account of her childhood in East Prussia before the war — a land she fled forever and which is now Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast. Joachim came to live on her family’s estate as a child, fleeing Stalin’s Russia prior to the war:

    “Joachim suffered a particularly tragic fate. When I managed our estates in the Second World War, I was able to persuade the authorities to exempt him from military service because he, as my only male assistant — all my brothers were serving in the war — was indispensable in the administration of the estates. But in the final phases of the war even that argument no longer proved effective, and without being given a hearing he was assigned to a Waffen SS unit, a hard blow for so fervent an anti-Nazi. A letter he wrote in January, 1945, from the Kolmar region was the last word we ever had from him.”

    Johann Rehbogen

    The second is a 94-year-old defendant who has gone on trial this week at a juvenile court in Münster, Germany, accused of complicity in mass murder due to serving as an SS guard in the war.

    It so happens that he worked as a guard in the Stutthof camp, east of modern-day Gdansk in northern Poland — in an area very close to the estate on which Countess Dönhoff grew up.

    From the summer of 1944, when Nazi Germany was in retreat, the Stutthoff camp was the scene of the gassing of more than 100 Polish prisoners, at least 77 Soviet POWs and “probably several hundred” Jewish prisoners.

    The reason Johann Rehbogen is being tried in a juvenile court is that he was not yet aged 21 when he worked as a guard at the camp, and so still a juvenile in the eyes of the law.

    Dortmund prosecutor Andreas Brendel is quoted as saying of the case:

    “Germany owes it to the families and victims to prosecute these Nazi crimes even today. That is a legal and moral question.”