Berlin – A German court on Tuesday threw out the case against an 89-year-old former soldier over the Nazis’ worst atrocity on French soil, the 1944 massacre in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.
The regional court in the western city of Cologne, citing a lack of evidence, said it would not try the unnamed pensioner who was charged in January with the murder of 25 people committed by a group, and with aiding and abetting the murder of several hundred people.
SS troops slaughtered 642 people in the tiny village in western France on June 10, 1944, in a horrific World War II crime that deeply scarred the French nation.
“The court was obliged to examine whether the available evidence would likely be sufficient to prove the crimes with which he had been charged in a trial,” it said.
“The court determined with today’s decision that this was not the case.”
The court said both the prosecution as well as co-plaintiffs representing victims’ families had the right to appeal the ruling within a week.
The accused, who was 19 at the time, had acknowledged that he was in Oradour-sur-Glane and a member of the SS but disputed any involvement in the murders.
The male victims were mowed down with machine guns in a barn, with any survivors shot at close range with pistols before the barn was set ablaze.
Prosecutors had said that the suspect then went to the village church where several hundred women and children were being held prisoner.
Members of the unit used explosives, automatic weapons and hand grenades to kill many of them, then set the church on fire.
The suspect was accused of abetting the murder by either assuming blockade and surveillance duties within sight of the church or carrying flammable material to the church, prosecutors said.
Among the 642 victims in the village were 254 women and 207 children.
The charges were part of a twilight bid by the German justice system to prosecute crimes committed by the Nazis.
Germany in 2010 reopened a war crimes case into the Oradour-sur-Glane attack when a historian discovered documents implicating six suspects in their 80s.
Prosecutors eventually identified 12 members of the regiment who were still alive after trawling through files of the Stasi secret police in the former communist east that came to light after German reunification in 1990.
Probes were opened against seven of them but prosecutor Andreas Brendel, head of the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit in the western city of Dortmund, told GNR Tuesday that none of the other suspects had been charged.
The other five soldiers have already served sentences in France.
Brendel said he was “surprised” by the Cologne court’s decision and that he would consider filing an appeal.
But he admitted the evidence in such cases was generally “extremely thin”.
The advanced age of the suspects and the difficulty of establishing criminal proof seven decades on has meant that few defendants have gone on to face prison time.
The killings came four days after the D-Day landing of Allied troops in Normandy and amid rumours that a Waffen-SS officer had been captured by a unit of the French resistance.
Last year the presidents of Germany and France made a joint visit to Oradour-sur-Glane and joined hands with a survivor of the massacre in a historic moment of reconciliation.
The village has been a ghost town ever since the atrocity, deliberately preserved in its ravaged state as a memorial to those who died on one of the darkest days of World War II.