Monday, June 29, 2015

McKay Smith's Relentless Pursuit of a Nazi War Criminal is Inspirational

As I head into my final year of law school, I often think about what kind of lawyer I want to be and what kind of work I would like to do. Shane Harris' article for the Daily Beast about McKay Smith's relentless pursuit of justice is a very inspirational account demonstrating how a person can use his legal training to try to gather evidence against a criminal in order to honor the memory of the men, women and children who were massacred in a particularly despicable war crime.

The 36 year old Smith works in the Justice Department's National Security Division. His job, as Harris describes it, is to watch the watchers, meaning keep tabs on those who perform surveillance for the government. However, Smith's passion is pursuing Nazis who have eluded justice for their participation in war crimes during World War II. Smith has spent four years and $15,000 of his own money to build an archive filled with more than 10,000 pages of official documents and photographs.

He started the project with a very different goal in mind: finding out about his grandfather, Lt. Raymond Murphy, who fought during World War II and passed away in 1970. After Murphy's B-17 bomber was shot down over France in 1944, he spent four months behind enemy lines. Murphy typed up a report detailing his experiences and at the end of the report he added this handwritten note: "I saw a town where some 500 men, women and children had been murdered by the Germans. I saw one baby who had been crucified."

Smith could not get that last image out of his mind. His research showed that Murphy had witnessed the grisly aftermath of a Nazi massacre in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Smith's research also revealed something else: one Nazi soldier who had been in that village--and who had never been tried for a war crime--was still living.

Werner Christukat is a 90 resident of Cologne, Germany. During World War II, he was a machine gunner with the Waffen SS. Christukat's unit was en route to fight the Allied forces that had landed at Normandy when it stopped in Oradour. Harris describes what the SS did in Oradour:

There, in a scene of depravity that was horrific even for the age of the Holocaust, Christukat's unit murdered 642 men, women, and children. It was the single largest mass killing of French civilians during the German occupation. Only six people survived. The men razed the village, leaving nothing but a ruined shell, which still stands today in the exact condition the Nazis left it. The French call Oradour a "ghost village."

In 1983, one SS officer was convicted for his role in the massacre, serving 14 years in prison before enjoying the last decade of his life in freedom. Right after World War II, 20 soldiers were convicted of participating in the massacre but none served any jail time. The rest of the murderers never faced justice at all, an outrage that has inspired Smith to work tirelessly to build a case against Christukat.

German prosecutors questioned Christukat in 1978 but decided that they did not have enough evidence to pursue a case against him. In January 2013, documents discovered in the archives of the Stasi (the East German secret police) contained enough evidence to charge Christukat with murder and accessory to murder. However, in December 2014 the district court in Cologne ruled that there was not enough evidence to proceed with a trial. The state attorney appealed that decision to the regional court.

Meanwhile, Smith continued to do his research, telling Harris, "I think it's clear that any soldier in that village on June 10 has blood on his hands."

The war crimes that Christukat's unit committed in Oradour are not isolated, Harris notes:

...Christukat’s regiment also conducted a brutal assault on the village of Tulle just one day earlier, and the historical record that Smith unearthed is filled with accounts of other Nazi units inflicting the same atrocities in other French villages as Christukat's regiment did at Oradour. In some of those towns, civilians were found strapped to wood planks, their arms spread out, as if they'd been crucified. This suggests that if the baby Murphy saw was at Oradour, the crucifixion was part of a systematic campaign of terror directed at French civilians, and not a unique event, Smith said.

The sickening details of the Oradour massacre are based on eyewitness testimony and from the accounts provided by the soldiers who were put on trial after World War II:
With the town surrounded by what one Oradour historian called an "execution perimeter," the unit's commander headed for the town center. He "pretended the citizens had a weapons cache in the village despite the denial of the mayor," according to one report that Smith found from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and that relied on original witness accounts. Other soldiers moved through the village with deliberate precision: up the main street, then back down to the center. Men, women, and children were rounded up and told to report to the fairgrounds, presumably to check their identity documents.

Smith contends that even men like Christukat, who were stationed on the perimeter, could have had no doubt about what the Germans had in store for Oradour. It's a point of view that many historians back. "A roundup began, directed systematically toward the fairgrounds, starting with the ring of sentinels and going from the village's edge toward the center," according to Oradour historian Jean-Jacques Fouché, who was the founding director of the "memory center" at the village and whose historians consider among the definitive accounts.

Once the bulk of the townspeople were gathered at the fairground, Christukat's unit separated the men and lined them up, in groups of 20, inside nearby barns and sheds. There, German machine gunners opened fire, aiming for their legs. The men fell like cut wheat. Those who didn't die from the gunshot wounds or bleed to death were killed when the soldiers set fire to the buildings. One gunner was spotted chewing on a lump of sugar, which he'd apparently stolen from a town store, as he waited for a batch of men to be brought before him.

"After the massacre came the women and children's turn for whom the Germans had prepared a more refined torture," according to an article in the French underground newspaper, Les Cahiers Francais, published by a band of resistance fighters. Approximately 250 women and 200 children were packed into the church, which normally sat at most 300 parishioners.  "They took them to the church where some of the little boys and girls were to take their First Communion the next day. There, the SS amused themselves by abusing their victims and profaning the altar; then, after laying down a large crate in the middle of the nave, they left." The crate contained a bomb.

The soldiers locked the doors to the church, triggered the device, and then threw grenades at the building, along with more explosives. The church was engulfed in flames.

The lone survivor recalled a number of sounds after the explosion. First, the screaming, as women clamored up the walls of the church and tried to force their way out the window. Then gunfire, as the soldiers shot at anyone who tried to free herself from the burning building. More than 60 of the children were less than six years old and must have been too small to climb. They huddled together near the altar or retreated into their mothers’ arms. Some of the children were in baby carriages.

In one of the barns, two men who'd managed to hide under their friends' bodies after they were mowed down by a machine gun heard something new and wholly unexpected: Music. The guards had turned on a radio as they sauntered through Oradour, dousing homes and buildings with fuel before setting them alight. The two men escaped after soldiers set fire to the barn. They are still alive.

The soldiers flushed villagers from hiding places behind clumps of ivy and then shot them as they ran for their lives. One soldier was heard singing. Another played an accordion. Christukat's unit apparently enjoyed working with accompaniment: At Tulle, the soldiers allegedly had played a waltz over their tank radios as they hung 99 civilians from lampposts.

House by house, person by person, the Germans destroyed Oradour. "The sound of these massacres [were] heard as far as Limoges," a village about 15 miles away, according to one report from a French witness that Smith found in the OSS files. The violence turned from systematic to purely savage. One German soldier, investigators later alleged, snatched up a child, pulled him into the town bakery, and tossed him into the oven, burning him alive.

Smith argues that the duration and scope of the massacre implicates every member of that SS unit as a murderer and/or an accessory to murder because every member of that unit could have at least fled the scene and declined to participate. The nature of the men who served in that unit is also revealed by another tidbit that Smith's research uncovered. Christukat's unit captured Herbert Campbell, an airman from Murphy's B-17 crew. Harris succinctly describes Campbell's fate at the hands of Christukat's SS unit: "The Germans beat Campbell with rifle butts, shoved a bayonet through his cheeks, and gouged out his eyes before stomping his head into small pieces."

Christukat admits being present in Oradour. Based on the eyewitness testimony, it stretches credulity to the breaking point to argue that he did not know about the massacre. Based on the SS' conduct in Oradour and throughout Nazi Germany's reign of terror, it is difficult to believe that Christukat did not participate in the slaughter. Christukat has provided varying and inconsistent accounts of his actions during the massacre, even suggesting that instead of participating in the massacre he actually saved some people's lives. However, the documented evidence about the few survivors of the massacre does not correspond with any of Christukat's various tales. Christukat has admitted that he was not merely stationed on the perimeter of the town but that he ventured into Oradour during the massacre. 

Harris writes that Christukat's stories do not hold up under scrutiny:

In 2013, investigators went to Christukat's home with photos, sketches, and a PowerPoint presentation that reconstructed where the now ruined buildings had stood. Point by point they went through Christukat's story and poked holes in it—he couldn't have been on one street when he claimed he was; he couldn't have seen explosives inside the church from the door, because you can't see the altar from the door; he had to have gone inside.

Smith declares, "Christukat's claims are absurd. [He] says he saved a child, yet almost all children were in school that day and only one managed to escape—Roger Godfrin. Moreover, while Roger was escaping he was shot at multiple times and even left for dead by a sentry outside the village. We need to get past the problem that there are no direct witnesses to Christukat's actions. This SS unit did their best to make sure there were no living witnesses, and it's clear that even the patrols on the outskirts of the village executed those who were trying to escape."

Sadly, Smith's crusade for justice fell short. The German investigators did not use Smith's evidence and in May 2015 the court ruled that the evidence presented by the prosecution failed to show "at least the probability" that Christukat had "concrete involvement in murder or complicity to murder." Technically, the case has been left open and Christukat could still be prosecuted if more evidence is presented to the court--but realistically, he will never spend a day in jail for his role in the Oradour massacre.

Smith does not agree with the German court's ruling but he understands the judicial process: "As a lawyer, I've been taught to respect a final appeal. I also know that investigative findings are only worthwhile if they can effectuate change. So, the court's ruling has been very difficult for me."

The whole case outrages Smith but what disturbs him the most is Christukat's implausible assertion that he helped to save a young boy during the massacre: "I think there is a far better chance that the boy he said he helped is that poor child my grandfather saw nailed to the cross."

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