Following the acquittal of Ladislav Niznansky of Nazi atrocities, Franco-German publicist and Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld spoke to DW-WORLD about the problems plaguing war crime trials 60 years on.
Lack of evidence meant Niznansky couldn't be nailed
Beate Klarsfeld, together with her husband Serge, heads the Organization "Fils et Filles des Deportes Juifs de France" (FFDJF - Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deportation in France). Both of them live in France. Beate Klarsfeld has also gained fame in Germany on account of spectacular protests against former Nazi officials and a determined fight against anti-Semitism. Beate and Serge Klarsfeld have also contributed to a few successful operations in hunting down former Nazis and trials against prominent Nazi perpetrators, for instance Klaus Barbie.
DW-WORLD: Ladislav Niznansky was acquitted. Do you think the decision is justified?
Beate Klarsfeld has been waging a determined battle against former Nazis
Beate Klarsfeld: I would not say it's fair because in my eyes he (Niznansky) participated in executions. But the acquittal is justified insofar as it's a democracy and if it cannot be proved, then the German court just can't sentence him. But the prosecutors were always very courageous in demanding a life sentence and I respect that.
The court came to the conclusion that Niznansky didn't play a leading role in the massacres. He has stated that following his capture by the Germans, he was forced to join the so-called "Edelweiss" unit that fought Slovak partisans. Isn't Niznansky then a victim himself?
He presented it that way. But I think that in general it's very difficult to conduct a trial 60 years after the events. Even the trials 30 years ago, which followed the method of sentencing the accused based on statements by witnesses, were extremely difficult. Today it's almost impossible. That's why I'm not surprised that they couldn't prove anything against him (Niznansky).
In 1962, a trial was conducted against Niznansky in the former Czechoslovakia, in which he was sentenced to death in absentia. Some of the witnesses at the time, who were found guilty themselves, have now retracted their statements and stressed that they were blackmailed at the time. What do you think about that?
It's difficult to say whether they were blackmailed at the time, it's possible. But often after the war, witnesses confused what they experienced and what they read after the war. It's not always easy to believe a witness one hundred percent. But I can't say whether pressure was exerted at the time.
Lack of evidence, missing witnesses, memory gaps -- what does it mean for a war crime trial when the truth is no longer to be found?
The trial of 88-year-old Niznansky may well be Europe's last major trial for Nazi atrocities
I would say that initiating the trial in the first place was probably not very clever because one had to consider the fact that it would lead to an acquittal. But least during the time that he faced the court, the issue was constantly reported about, witnesses made statements and the public knows for sure that the witnesses didn't invent the crime. This trial was -- even though it's ended in an acquittal -- at least necessary because it uncovered the atrocity that the "Edelweiss" group committed in Slovakia.
Do you also see a danger in the acquittal? Could it be used by certain groups for means of propaganda?
Yes, of course, by right-wing extremists. Though they actually don't need this acquittal to hound Jews and minorities. But, I take it, they will consider using it.
Do you think this was one of the last major trials for Nazi atrocities during World War Two?
I don't know the files so well. But, I would say that it will only get tougher because the perpetrators are at an age where they can hardly stand in court -- they're ill or senile and then the trials would have to have a good basis. That means not just trials where there's a possibility of a sentencing based on a witness statement, but also where there's something in writing.