Gino Massetti was only 15 when Nazi troops rounded him up with 10 other Italian civilians and forced them into a barn in Tuscany before blowing it up - a massacre carried out in revenge after partisans killed two soldiers.
Though Massetti, the lone survivor, couldn't identify who ordered the slaughter, former Wehrmacht Lt. Josef Scheungraber was convicted Tuesday of murder based on circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene as the ranking officer. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Scheungraber's lawyer, Klaus Goebel, said he would appeal what
he called "a scandalous verdict." The 90-year-old Scheungraber
declined to comment.
Though witnesses in such cases are rare and memories have faded
over more than six decades since World War II, the case underscores
that it is still possible to win a conviction against Nazi war
criminals, experts say.
"Even old age cannot protect one from prosecution," Norbert
Frei, a historian at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena,
told Bayerischen Rundfunk radio.
An American attorney who served as the U.S. Justice Department's
lead lawyer in the 2002 case against John Demjanjuk said the
verdict has important implications for the German trial of the
retired autoworker accused of being a guard at the Sobibor
"It's going to be a similar body of evidence that is used
against Demjanjuk, and the fact that you have a conviction in this
case is a very promising sign for the Demjanjuk prosecution,"
Jonathan Drimmer, now in private practice, said by telephone from
his Washington office.
The 89-year-old Demjanjuk, charged as an accessory to the murder
of 27,900 people at Sobibor, was deported from the U.S. in May
after losing all appeals there. The same court where Scheungraber
was convicted had not decided when Demjanjuk might go on trial.
The Demjanjuk case is another where there are no known direct
living witnesses, and prosecutors are relying on historical
documents in their attempt to prove he served as a guard at the
death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In its ruling, the Munich state court ruled that Scheungraber's
men exacted vengeance against the population of Falzano di Cortona,
near the Italian town of Arezzo, after local partisans killed two
German soldiers in June 1944.
"It was about revenge," said Judge Manfred Goetzl.
Scheungraber, who was a 25-year-old in command of a company of
engineers at the time, maintained he was not in Falzano di Cortona
when the killings happened, but was overseeing reconstruction of a
nearby bridge. However, the court said evidence presented over the
last 11 months showed Scheungraber "was the only officer present
to give the order."
The court said he had ordered two of his men on a mission, and
sent his driver to look for them when they did not return. When
they were found dead, Scheungraber organized their burial; pictures
showing him there were presented at the trial.
"The accused, who felt personally responsible for the deaths of
two of his comrades, wanted to counter the fear, the hate and the
helplessness of the soldiers, who expected protective measures on
one hand, and revenge on the other," the court said in its ruling.
Scheungraber drew several deep breaths after his conviction was
announced and listened to the judge's explanation with his eyes
"The past caught up with the defendant," prosecutor
Hans-Joachim Lutz said. "He will have to atone for his guilt."
Scheungraber was acquitted of ordering soldiers to shoot to
death three Italian men and one woman before the massacre in the
barn; the court said it could not be proven that he gave the order.
During the trial, Massetti described how he was rounded up with
the others and herded into the barn.
"I heard a scream, and that was it then. They were all dead,"
Just before the barn was blown up, Massetti recalled, he saw a
man he assumed was an officer arrive on a motorcycle and give what
appeared to be an order. Massetti could not describe the officer
and didn't understand what he said.
Massetti said it was down to luck that he survived. He was
partly shielded from the blast after a heavy beam and a man fell on
top of him.
A former work colleague also testified that he remembered
Scheungraber saying in the 1970s that he couldn't visit Italy
because of what happened during the war, which involved "shooting
a dozen men and blowing them into the air."
The witness, Eugen Schuh, testified he did not remember
Scheungraber saying he had given the order, but said the defendant
told the story "as if it were his decision."
If there is reasonable doubt in a case, German courts are
supposed to rule for the defendant. Stephen Klemp - a researcher
for the Simon Wiesenthal Center - said in past decades, even cases
with seemingly stronger evidence tended to go in the defendants'
He said the Scheungraber verdict was a "good sign" for future
"I would not have been surprised if he would have been
acquitted ... but maybe the times are changing for Nazi war
criminals in Germany now," he said.
Drimmer pointed out, meanwhile, that American courts have been
much more willing to convict on circumstantial evidence, and
suggested the attitude was starting to spread across the Atlantic.
He also said in historical cases - especially involving wartime
experiences where someone catches a glimpse of someone involved in
an atrocity - witness accounts are generally unreliable.
"These are going to be recollections that, 60 years after the
fact, it's going to be hard to put a lot of credibility into for a
criminal charge," Drimmer said.
Following the verdict, court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel said
Scheungraber would not go to prison until the appeals process is
finished. That could take months.
A few relatives of Scheungraber's victims attended the judgment
and expressed satisfaction with the outcome.
"This was a very important verdict for our family," said
Angiola Lescai, 60, whose grandfather was killed in the barn. "We
view this as a very beautiful gesture of reconciliation."