Germany legal immunity in nazi war crimes: national media reports

Article published on Feb. 16, 2012
Article published on Feb. 16, 2012
On 3 February, the UN's highest-ranking court, the international court of justice, ruled in a 12 to 3 vote that Germany may not be pursued for world war II compensation claims in foreign courts. It comes after an Italian civil court awarded world war two slave labourer Luigi Ferrini compensation on Germany’s behalf in 2004

Reaction to the recent decision of the international court of justice (ICJ) in the German media has been brief but balanced. Most newspapers and weeklies choose simply to 'report the facts'. The case is mostly presented as an effort to clarify certain principals of international law rather than as a judgement on the validity of compensation claims for nazi-era crimes. However, some papers have called into question the adequacy of Germany’s present reparations programme in light of this ruling. This is relevant because one of the German government’s central arguments before the ICJ was that any individual compensation offered by Italian courts would actively undermine its own redressment efforts.

Villa politics

As the title (‘jurisdictional immunities of the state’) of the ICJ’s decision suggests, the key issue under deliberation was whether or not it should be permissible to initiate civil proceedings against a sovereign state in a foreign court. In 2008, Italy's highest civil court, the Corte di Cassazione, ruled that Germany must pay reparations to the relatives of those killed in the 1944 massacre at the Tuscan village of Civitella, where more than 200 people lost their lives. The court had a villa owned by the German state on Lake Como confiscated as well as a portion of the income from cross-border rail traffic. However, the ICJ rejected this decision, deeming it a breach of the ‘obligation owed by the Italian state to Germany’. It now lies with the Italian government to ensure that the judiciary does not reach similar decisions in the future.

In both the liberal portalZeit Online and the liberal conservative Der Tagesspiegel, the predicament that certain groups of victims still face is acknowledged. Both papers mention that the only foreigners who are widely eligible for compensation are those that suffered ‘persecution typical of the nazi regime’, such as deportation and concentration camp internment. Yet according to Zeit Online, these efforts are as meagre in size as they are in scope. Existing compensation schemes only offer holocaust survivors an average of about 150 DM per month of internment. Many others, such as forced labourers and victims of war crimes, are not explicitly acknowledged by Germany and must wait for a separate political agreement in order to be granted compensation.

People behind stories

While many reports concede Luigi Ferrini his role as a catalyst for the ICJ case, few besides Zeit Online actually explore the story’s human aspects. In August 1944, Ferrini was taken from his hometown of Talla to Kahla in Thüringen. There he was forced to build underground tunnels that would permit the daylight assembly of the Me 262, an advanced German bomber. Nearly 1, 000 of his fellow labourers died as a result of hunger and poor working conditions. Ferrini, although gravely ill, survived and returned to Tuscany. At 85, he is still waiting to receive compensation for what he endured then. The most interesting take on the on the ICJ's decision comes from Der Spiegel magazine. ‘Germany sues Italy, and wins. However the apparent losers secretly applaud the outcome while many other governments around the world breathe a sigh of relief.’ The article suggests that had the ICJ decided differently, it would have opened the floodgates for a slew of similar claims from people living in places such as Libya, Afghanistan and the Balkans.

‘Why should I, at 24, be held accountable for what other people did nearly a century ago'

German sentiment concerning the issue of world war II reparations seems as varied as it has always been. One reader comments on the website of Die Zeit: ‘Why should I, at 24, be held accountable for what other people did nearly a century ago? What’s important is that these mistakes are never repeated again. As a politics teacher, I am doing my part.’ Another questioned whether one might not also be able to argue having survived the ‘massacre at Carthage in 146 B.C. or the thirty-years-war in 1618’, and claim compensation on those grounds. One last commentator questions whether modern-day Germany can truly be considered the successor of the German Reich. ‘The allies helped found and shape the Federal Republic of Germany as it is today. As finance minister Schäuble has said, Germany has not been a wholly sovereign country since the end of the war.’

Image: (cc) Chapendra/ flickr; video (cc) euronews