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Demonstrating Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires
Pressure from Argentine protest groups helped lift amnesty for criminalsImage: AP

Käsemann case

July 15, 2011

Germany was a joint plaintiff in the case against several former Argentine military rulers accused of killing German student Elisabeth Käsemann in May, 1977.


Seven former Argentine military leaders had been on trial since February 2010 for crimes they allegedly committed in the once-renowned torture camp known as El Vesubio, in Buenos Aires.

They had been charged with six counts of murder, and of 156 violent kidnappings that took place between April 1976 and September 1978. To this day there is no trace of 75 of the 150 prisoners who were forcibly carted off to El Vesubio.

More than 300 witnesses took the stand at the trial, including 70 survivors of the torture camp. However, the head of the camp, Pedro Durán Sáenz, can no longer be tried since he died several weeks ago at age 76.

German student abducted

A German student, Elisabeth Käsemann, was among the victims. She was arrested in early March, 1977, and died on May 24 at the age of 30. At the time, the junta leaders said she was shot in a firefight during a standoff with terrorist guerillas. But forensic evidence later showed that Käsemann had been assassinated with several close-range bullet shots to her back and neck.

Elisabeth Käsemann portrait
Käsemann's case is widely known in Germany

The daughter of German theologian Ernst Käsemann, Elisabeth Käsemann first went to Argentina in the 1970s and worked with a social project there. After the military coup, she helped people leave the country who were being politically persecuted.

"For Germany, this trial is very meaningful … because the case of Elisabeth Käsemann is the best-known case of a murdered, or 'disappeared' German," said Wolfgang Kaleck, a human rights lawyer and Secretary General of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

"In Germany, there have already been several attempts to bring this case to court. The Nuremberg prosecutor's office has been intensively investigating the case since 1999. In 2002 and 2003, the Nuremberg district court sent out international arrest warrants against generals, especially ex junta-chief Videla." Germany also requested the extradition of retired Col. Pedro Durán Sáenz, who it claims had a hand in murdering Käsemann. But Argentina denied the request.

Exemplary process

It has only been possible to try military officials in Argentina since amnesty laws were annulled in 2005. But since then, the country's process of dealing with its past has been "historically important, and a model for the rest of the world," according to human rights expert Kaleck.

"Since 2007, some 150 military officials and police have been sentenced for human rights abuses," Kaleck continued. "There is no other country in the world whose courts have dealt with its own past as intensively as Argentina has. I hope they are seen as an example in the region, and that it will influence countries like Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Columbia and Peru."

Criticism of Germany

At the time, the German government - led by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher - was accused of not doing enough to free Käsemann.

Rights activist Kaleck, a lawyer for the group Koalition Gegen Straflosigkeit (Coalition Against Impunity) says that criticism is still valid today.

"We criticize the actions not only of German diplomats at that time, but of many institutions during the military dictatorship," he said. "They were too passive; they were in cahoots with the military dictatorship. They didn't do enough for the German citizens who were imprisoned and disappeared."

Argentina's Military junta
A 1976 putsch put a military junta in charge of ArgentinaImage: AP

This has changed significantly since the case was taken up by the Coalition against Impunity in 1999, Kaleck says. After that year, the foreign ministry and also the German embassy in Buenos Aires became much more involved in the cases, inviting the mothers of the disappeared to the embassy and accompanying witnesses who were giving testimony before Argentine courts.

"A lot has improved in the last decade, but not enough," Kaleck said.

Despite the foreign ministry's "very open" attitude, Germany has thus far failed to comment on the actions - and lack of action - of its diplomats at the time.

"We have always wanted an official investigation into their behavior, but we never got one," he added.

Authors: Mirjam Gehrke/Evan Romero (jen)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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