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Court Cases Bring Nazi, Stasi Crimes to Life

The past has bubbled up again this week in the trials of three men accused of murder. One, a 93-year-old Nazi officer, the other two, commanders in East Germany's secret police.


The legacy of the past

Germany’s violent past has made a very public appearance this week in two court cases taking place in Hamburg and Berlin examining the crimes of a former Nazi SS officer and two former East German Stasi commanders.

All three are accused of committing murder. The East German border guards allegedly shot a West German activist on the border as he tried dismantling a mine on the East-West border. Former head of the Nazi Security Service Friedrich Engel, 93, stands accused of ordering the execution of 59 Italian prisoners in 1944.

For the relatives of those killed the trials offer an opportunity to close a painful chapter. For those accused, they present a confrontation with a bitter and violent past. For Germany, they offer both.

Almost 60 years after WWII and 13 years after the fall of communist East Germany, the trials are evidence the country still has a lot to work through. To aid in the reevaluation of the past, the country has set up commissions and organizations charged with illuminating past crimes of the Nazi and communist East German era.

Investigating the vilest crimes for more than 40 years

The oldest of these, Germany’s Nazi Crime Authority first began work in 1958. Since then, they have investigated more than 100,000 Nazi war crimes cases. More than 6,500 of those have resulted in convictions and sentences.

The investigations don’t look to end anytime soon, said authority head Kurt Schrimm.

"If you would have asked me three years ago, I would have said with assurance that the time has past," Schrimm said in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung. Now, Schrimm says there are at least 20 cases still to be prosecuted, not including Engel.

The process is a painful for Germans, who are faced with the legacy of their horrific past on a daily basis. Painful, but necessary.

"We show the victims and their relatives that their fate matters to us," Schrimm said of the Nazi prosecutions. "And we show society that no one who committed serious or the most serious crimes can be removed of their guilt or responsibility."

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