Commentary Magazine


Topic: war crimes

What to Do With a Dead Nazi

Predictably, the death of one of the last living war criminals from the Nazi era has triggered the usual emotional storm, showing how difficult it is for Western societies to fully come to terms with the past and act with moral clarity when it comes to its ghosts.

Erich Priebke was an SS officer in Rome when the occupying power ordered the execution of hundreds of Jews and political prisoners in response to an attack by the Italian Resistance. Priebke participated in the slaughter and was condemned. He passed away last week in Rome, the scene of his crimes 69 years ago. Like so many war criminals, in 1945 he found an escape route to South America, where he lived, undaunted, undisturbed and unrepentant, until he was finally extradited in 1994 to stand trial in Italy. By then, Priebke was an octogenarian pensioner, who, unlike his victims, lived a full and free existence. He even begat a child whom he raised in the same values of anti-Semitic hatred, if one is to judge by the recent declarations of his son.

Nor was his punishment commensurate to his crimes – being so old when he was extradited, he spent his confinement at the home of his lawyer, rather than in a prison cell, or under six feet of dirt like his victims. Every additional day of life for Priebke has been an insult to the memory of his victims and all those who died at the hands of The Nazi extermination machinery. That he died at age 100, in the tranquility of his lawyer’s residence in Rome, is a reminder of the limits of human justice.

It is also the trigger of a disingenuous polemic about pity, piety, mercy and the dignity of death, for now many voices are being raised in Italy to give him a proper burial, inclusive of religious sacraments. But given his crimes, no measure of prayer and holy water should save his soul.

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Predictably, the death of one of the last living war criminals from the Nazi era has triggered the usual emotional storm, showing how difficult it is for Western societies to fully come to terms with the past and act with moral clarity when it comes to its ghosts.

Erich Priebke was an SS officer in Rome when the occupying power ordered the execution of hundreds of Jews and political prisoners in response to an attack by the Italian Resistance. Priebke participated in the slaughter and was condemned. He passed away last week in Rome, the scene of his crimes 69 years ago. Like so many war criminals, in 1945 he found an escape route to South America, where he lived, undaunted, undisturbed and unrepentant, until he was finally extradited in 1994 to stand trial in Italy. By then, Priebke was an octogenarian pensioner, who, unlike his victims, lived a full and free existence. He even begat a child whom he raised in the same values of anti-Semitic hatred, if one is to judge by the recent declarations of his son.

Nor was his punishment commensurate to his crimes – being so old when he was extradited, he spent his confinement at the home of his lawyer, rather than in a prison cell, or under six feet of dirt like his victims. Every additional day of life for Priebke has been an insult to the memory of his victims and all those who died at the hands of The Nazi extermination machinery. That he died at age 100, in the tranquility of his lawyer’s residence in Rome, is a reminder of the limits of human justice.

It is also the trigger of a disingenuous polemic about pity, piety, mercy and the dignity of death, for now many voices are being raised in Italy to give him a proper burial, inclusive of religious sacraments. But given his crimes, no measure of prayer and holy water should save his soul.

To the Vatican’s credit — a further sign that Pope Francis’ warmth to the Jewish people is not just genuine but driven by moral resolve — an order has gone out to all Roman churches not to celebrate the funeral. Priebke’s lawyer is stuck with a Nazi cadaver in his home, and Italy is debating how to dispose of his dead body.

And this is where moral clarity is missing – Priebke and his fellow thugs never gave any of their victims the dignity of a decent burial. Complicit governments gave him a new lease of life, letting him escape justice and live for another 69 years after his crimes were consummated. Now that he is dead, human forgetfulness and some measure of malice is chastising those who wish to prevent his burial on Italian soil, let alone with the succor of religious sacraments.

Priebke’s cadaver should simply be cremated; his ashes dispersed at sea, outside Italy’s territorial waters, so as not to pollute the memory of his victims further by his presence and so as not to provide another pilgrimage site for European Neo-Nazis.

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Human Rights Activists vs. the International Court

Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.

The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.

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Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.

The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.

Second, it acknowledged the obvious fact that even the most careful army can’t prevent civilian casualties. Some 150 civilians died in the generals’ four-day bombing campaign. But the appeals court said these deaths didn’t constitute war crimes, because the troops had aimed at legitimate military targets. In other words, it ruled that civilian casualties aren’t ipso facto illegal; they may be unavoidable consequences of legitimate military activity–especially when military targets are located in crowded urban areas.

Third, it acknowledged that even when genuine war crimes occur, they may be the acts of errant individuals rather than deliberate policy: It concluded that acts of looting and murder following the bombing campaign occurred not on the generals’ orders, but despite them.

Finally, it acknowledged the obvious fact that fleeing a war zone is normal, so a civilian exodus isn’t necessarily proof of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In short, the court recognized a simple truth that “human rights” activists try hard to obscure: War is always hell, but not every act of war is a war crime.

Unfortunately, this welcome breath of sanity has been under assault from the moment it was issued. The first attack came from the court itself: The dissenting judges in the 3-2 verdict publicly termed it “grotesque” and said it lacked “any sense of justice.”

Now, activists like Harland are joining the chorus. Unlike the court, he can’t accept that civilians might spontaneously–and sensibly–flee a war zone: “If the acquitted generals were not responsible for this ethnic cleansing, then somebody was,” he declared.

Even more disturbing, he appears to think “fairness” requires convictions for all parties to a conflict even if only one side committed war crimes: “Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics,” he wrote.

I can’t imagine a worse indictment of the “human rights” community than that: Justice be damned; convictions must be issued to both sides for the sake of “politics.” It’s precisely that monstrous idea against which the appeals court struck such a welcome blow last month.

But as reactions like Harland’s show, restoring sanity to the concept of “international human rights law” is going to be a long, hard haul.

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Hamas’s Triple War Crimes

Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.

It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque: 

“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.” 

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Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.

It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque: 

“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.” 

In another call yesterday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said that Israel has so far used more than 10,000 phone calls, text messages, pamphlets, and other public announcements to warn Palestinian civilians of areas to avoid, and inform them of areas where they can safely take shelter. Pamphlets have been dropped from the sky providing directions — complete with roads to use. 

As Netanyahu told the UN head yesterday: “I’m not sure that there is another military on earth that goes to such great lengths to keep innocents out of harm’s way.” It is an extraordinary accomplishment, given the fact that Israel is facing an enemy that uses triple war crimes as the heart of its military/media strategy.

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