Germany to overturn Nazi treason convictions

Image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp in 1945. It was more than five decades before he was formally exonerated.Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Germany's governing parties agreed Wednesday on a blanket measure to overturn Nazi-era verdicts convicting people of treason, nearly 65 years after the end of World War II.

Treason convictions carried the death penalty and were handed down in Nazi Germany for any act deemed harmful to the nation or helpful to the enemy. Under that umbrella, people were convicted of treason for political resistance, aiding Jews, helping prisoners of war and scores of other acts.

Since the end of the war in 1945, the treason convictions had to be handled on an individual basis with a prosecutor weighing whether they should be overturned.

In 1996, for example, Berlin justice officials formally exonerated the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged in Bavaria in April 1945 for his role in plotting the attempted assassination of Hitler. The ruling also covered other resistance figures, including Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, who was sentenced and hanged with Bonhoeffer.

Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the Bavarian-only sister Christian Social Union had been against a blanket measure overturning the convictions, however, arguing some of those sentenced may have harmed comrades in arms.

'Instrument of arbitrary Nazi justice'
But after a study of the issue concluded that it was impossible to determine whether the acts for which people were sentenced "harmed a third party," they signed off on the draft legislation. It will go before parliament next month.

"In fact, the general offense of treason was used as an instrument of arbitrary Nazi justice, whereby almost any politically unpopular act could be punished with death," the legislation reads.

Thomas Oppermann, a spokesman for the Social Democrats — the partners of Merkel's CDU in the country's coalition government — said now that both parties had agreed upon the proposed legislation it would go before parliament in August.

Lala Suesskind, chairman of Berlin's Jewish community, called for all parties to support the legislation.

"The Jewish community of Berlin welcomes the cross-party legislation to rehabilitate the so-called war traitors," she said in a statement. "This group of people took part in, for a variety of motivations, resistance against the Nazi regime."

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