War Guilt Expiation

February 24, 1965

Report Outline
New Debate Over Nazi War Criminals
War Crimes Prosecutions Since 1945
Issues in Continuation of Prosecutions

New Debate Over Nazi War Criminals

Almost 20 YEARS after V-E Day, the shadow of the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler still looms over Germany and over Europe and the world. Various events have occurred in the past few years to keep fresh the memory of Nazi rule. Prominent among them have been the apprehension by Israeli agents in 1960 of Adolf Eichmann, who had had a leading part in administering the Nazi program for deportation of millions of Jews to the gas chambers; Eichmann's long trial in 1961, which recalled and re-emphasized horrors of the Nazis' “final solution” of Europe's Jewish problem; and his execution in 1962. Trials of other former Nazi officials by West German authorities also have given widespread publicity to descriptions of mass murders and atrocities.

War Crimes and German Statute of Limitations

The trials have renewed debate over the share of the average German in Nazi guilt and over fulfillment of the task of punishing war criminals. Now the possibility that some former Nazis guilty of individual or mass murder might escape legal punishment is raising a storm. West Germany's criminal code provides that the statute of limitations applies to murder when a period of 20 years has elapsed since the crime was committed. Because crimes committed under Nazi rule could not be punished until the regime was overwhelmed, the period over which the statute runs did not begin until the final defeat of the Third Reich in the spring of 1945. As it stands now, proceedings against Nazis accused of murder during Hitler's time must be started on or before May 8 in German states formerly within the British of French zones of occupation, and on or before July 1 in states in the former American zone.

Impending application of the statute of limitations to Nazi crimes raises the possibility not only that some guilty persons might escape justice but also that they might reveal their identity, secure in the knowledge that they could no longer be prosecuted. Federal Republic officials are concerned also lest the Soviet Union, East Germany or other Communist countries embarrass Bonn by disclosing information from their files, now unknown in West Germany, that would incriminate persons occupying high office in the government. The Communist countries have held numerous war crimes trials involving persons within their jurisdictions, but they have not always cooperated when asked to open their files to West German authorities.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Dec. 22, 1989  A Primer on German Reunification
Apr. 19, 1985  German Reconciliation
Feb. 25, 1983  West Germany's ‘Missile’ Election
Jan. 14, 1970  German Reconciliation
Jan. 29, 1969  West German Prosperity
Mar. 30, 1966  German Border Question and Reunification
Aug. 18, 1965  West German Election, 1965
Feb. 24, 1965  War Guilt Expiation
Jul. 01, 1964  German Question
Sep. 01, 1961  Captive East Germany
Aug. 23, 1961  West German Election, 1961
May 04, 1960  Berlin Question
Dec. 24, 1958  Berlin Crisis and German Reunification
Aug. 21, 1957  German Election, 1957
Oct. 19, 1955  European Security
Jun. 15, 1955  Germany and the Balance of Power
Oct. 19, 1954  German Rearmament
Jan. 19, 1954  West German Recovery
Mar. 12, 1953  Harassed Berlin
Apr. 26, 1950  German Problem
Feb. 18, 1948  Rehabilitation of the Ruhr
Oct. 23, 1946  Future of Germany
Nov. 25, 1944  Transfers of Populations
Nov. 01, 1940  Economic Controls in Nazi Germany
Mar. 09, 1939  Foreign Trade in German Economy
Apr. 02, 1936  Germany's Post-War European Relations
Nov. 02, 1934  The Coming Saab Plebiscite
Apr. 23, 1931  The Austro-German Customs Union Project
Feb. 05, 1929  The Rhineland Problem
Nov. 07, 1924  German National Elections December, 1924
Apr. 30, 1924  The German National Elections
Global Issues
International Law and Agreements