Searchlight - May 2010
The Dutch-German former SS member Heinrich Boere was jailed for life by a court in Aachen, Germany, on 23 March, after what may be the final trial of a German war criminal from the Second World War.
The trial of Boere, born to a Dutch mother and a German father, started at the end of October 2009. In particular, he was charged with the murder on three Dutch civilians, Teun de Groot, Frits Bicknese and Frans Kusters in 1944 during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Boere was convicted, in absentia, in 1949 by an Amsterdam court but had already absconded to Germany, escaping from a prisoner transport and hiding for seven years at his mother's home in Maastricht before fleeing to Germany and generally keeping his head down there. In 1983 he was briefly held for investigation but the German authorities decided he was not a war criminal because his victims lived in the "illegality of the resistance".
For their part, the Dutch authorities neither contested nor complained about this decision. Despite some later requests from various Dutch ministers of Justice at different times, the German government never extradited Boere nor did German public prosecutors themselves start any investigations against him, even though, in 1994, Dutch and German anti-fascists demonstrated at Boere's home in Eschweiler, near Aachen, and lobbied for his prosecution.
Until 2000, when a documentary about the so-called Silbertanne murders, the title given to the murders of Dutch civilians and resistance fighters by the SS's Feldmeijer murder commando (named after Henk Feldmeijer, a propaganda instructor in the Dutch National Socialist Movement (NSB) of which Boere was a member, the issue lay dormant. After that it was almost constantly in the media and, in October 2006, members of the anti-fascist group Keine Ruhe again picketed Boere's home.
In 2008, the German public prosecutor finally decided to prosecute Boere, who by then had become the sixth most wanted Nazi war criminal on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's list. Boere, who had previously admitted his crimes, then tried to stall his trial by instructing his lawyers to request that the charges must be dropped because he was unfit to stand trial. This was dismissed, however, and Boere was found fit to stand trial and brought into court, on 28 October, in a wheel chair and accompanied by two medics.
His two lawyers, Gordon Christiansen and Matthias Rahmlow, argued that Boere could not be convicted twice for the same crimes, pointing to European regulations but the judge in the case, Gerd Nohl, laid aside their objections, enabling the case to proceed.
The most important prosecution witness was Dutchman Jacobus Besteman, a resident of Wassenaar. Besteman, a former member of the SS Westland regiment, was convicted in 1949 for his own part in the Silbertanne murders and had spent thirteen years in prison. On the eleventh day of the trial on 15 January, Besteman's evidence was heard over a video link. It is not a success for the prosecution, Besteman saying he could not remember being sentenced to death in 1946, being member of the NSB in 1940 nor even recall what the German SS was. Asked whether he had fought with the SS's Viking division on the Eastern Front, his memory again failed him but he did comment. "I think there were Dutch there".
Asked by Nohl why the mayors of Asten and Someren were murdered and why the pharmacist Frits Bicknese from Breda had to be killed, Besteman declared that he had not done it and that he had never owned a gun. Surprisingly, however, the senile Besteman let out more about the details of the killing of Fritz Bicknese than intended, telling the court: "We were dressed in civilian clothes and we entered the shop. I stood next to Boere and suddenly there was a shot and the man in the pharmacy was dead." Nohl then tried to find out from Besteman about the so-called Befehlsnotstand, an important part of Boere's defence, according to which if he had refused to obey orders he would have been sent to a concentration camp or be executed but Besteman could not shine any light on the matter.
At the end of January, new evidence was presented against Boere by Detlef Hartman and Wolfgang Heiermann, the lawyers of the families of Boere's victims, who produced facts from Dutch archives that placed Boere's life and criminal career in another perspective. Boere, it turned out, had lied to the court about his membership of the NSB, his return from the Eastern Front and his ideological ideas. In fact, in January 1943, Boere entered the ranks of the NSB and, in March 1944, the German SS and, in the same year, went through weapons training. At his own request, he then undertook police training and he was deployed to the SS police unit Landstorm.
Now well trained with all kinds of weapons, Boere was ordered, as part of the Feldmeijer commando, to root out Dutch people hiding escaped prisoners, resistance fighters and Allied airmen hiders and their helpers. One of the unit's first actions was to go to the town of Helden Panningen in the south of the Netherlands and, claiming they were refugees looking for a place to hide, attempted to win the trust of the local resistance.
In the verbatim record of a 1946 hearing against Boere, he had said "We told the farmers we could stay but would have to pick up some stuff and would be back in two days. When we gathered enough information we reported our findings at our headquarters in Maastricht." In the raids that followed on 17 May 1944, Boere and his colleagues leading a group of German soldiers, 52 people were arrested. At least seven of them died in Dutch or German camps and Boere and his accomplices were each rewarded with 75 guilders.
The new evidence from the victims' families revealed Boere as a convinced national socialist who committed his crimes with obstinate energy. His promotion to team leader in July 1944, according to the investigation a reward for the murder of Bicknese, contradicts the image of Boere as a simple man and "a mere soldier".
Hartman and Heiermann stated that almost every family on the country side in the Limburg region contributed to the networks of the resistance…"and it is those people – and not the German authorities with their weakly built cases against Nazis who couldn't be prosecuted in the end and who had a blind spot for Nazis in the elite – who are answering the demand for justice to this very day."
The families of the victims of the Helden Panningen raids, meanwhile, filed a complaint against Boere in Dortmund on 28 January but Ulrich Maass, the German public prosecutor, declared on 19 February that he would allow some of the evidence but would open, and immediately close the Helden Panningen case because it would delay the Aachen trial…a cynical response a representative of the same German "justice" that had failed to prosecute Boere for 60 years.
In the final stage of the Aachen trial, Boere was heard again but, like Besteman, was having memory problems, claiming to be unable to remember belonging to the NSB or to the Landwacht or training recruits. On 2 March, Maass demanded a life prison sentence for Boere for the murder on Frits Bicknese, Teun de Groot and Frans Kusters and in his verdict, delivered on 23 March, Nohl branded Boere's deeds as "unprecedented in cowardice and deceit". "Boere, he said, "was always upfront, thought of himself as a real man and was always the first to shoot". Nohl also said that Boere killed innocent people and that therefore the murders where 'mean and cowardly'. The murders where besides the competence of a soldier and therefore the naming of the trial as a war criminal trial wouldn't do justice to the acts of Boere. Not a word of consideration was given by Nohl, however, to the systematic nature of German SS and Wehrmacht war crimes or to why the German authorities had failed previously to prosecute Boere. Instead Nohl implied that murders shouldn't be considered 'mean and cowardly' if they were committed in 'non-innocents'.
Following the words of Nohl resistance fighters were not innocent and the direct actions of the SS could be seen as legitimate actions against civilians due to the 'terror'. And what about the 'plight' of the soldier in the context of the Wehrmacht and the German destruction war? Not a word by the judge about the systematic German war crimes and why the German authorities didn't prosecute Boere before.
Despite this crucial omission, the case is an important one that will, hopefully, encourage the victims of other Nazis still living in Germany to continue their efforts to bring the remaining known war criminals to trial. How much this means illustrated the words of the son of one of Boeres victims, Teun de Groot, after the trial: "What I wish for Boere after this conviction? A long and lasting life!"
Jeroen Bosch for Alert! and Antifa-Net in Amsterdam