Almost 65 years after the end of the Second World War, an 88-year-old former Dutch SS officer finally faced a German court today. Back in 1949, Heinrich Boere was convicted in the Netherlands of the murder of three innocent civilians, but he avoided prison by fleeing to Germany.
The expected courtroom drama did, however, get off to something of a false start with the case being immediately adjourned. The defence lawyers accused the Public Prosecutor of being biased.
They are demanding a change of prosecutor claiming he is prejudiced since he appeared on a Dutch TV programme last month and said Boere was guilty and should go to jail. The trial will resume on Monday when the prosecution will answer the allegation.
Radio Netherlands Worldwide correspondent Laurens Boven has been following the case and has the background on what is to be one of the last Nazi trials in Europe.
By Laurens Boven
On 3 September 1944, the doorbell rang at the home of Teun de Groot in town of Voorschoten near The Hague. The 41-year-old bicycle repair man and father of five opened the door to two men in plain clothes. They asked if his name was De Groot, when he said it was, they shot him dead without another word.
Teun de Groot was the victim of Operation Silbertanne, in which the Nazi occupiers killed more than 50 innocent Dutch civilians in 1943 and 1944, in reprisal for resistance attacks. "The whole point of Operation Silbertanne was to spread terror and to intimidate people," says Teun de Groot jr. on the eve of the trial in Aachen of Heinrich Boere, his father’s murderer.
Heinrich Boere and his comrades murdered more than 50 people within a year. Every time a German occupier or Dutch collaborator was killed, the German intelligence service ordered three Dutch civilians to be shot dead. A list of names of potential victims was provided by the Dutch Nazi movement, the NSB.
Dutch SS volunteers
Close to 350,000 volunteers from at least 16 Nazi-occupied countries in Europe volunteered to fight with the Waffen SS - in most cases against the then Soviet Union (USSR).
Of these, around 125,000 came from western Europe. Those recruited in eastern Europe came mainly from the Baltic States (under Soviet domination) and the Ukraine (then part of the USSR).
The number of Dutch SS volunteers is estimated to have been between 22,000 and 23,000. Some 7,000 actually died in combat.
(Image from an SS recruitment poster. Text: For your honour and conscience, Forward! Against Bolshevism. The Waffen SS calls you!).
Family torn apart
His father's murder ruined Teun de Groot jr.’s life. He does not remember much about that day: "Just that my uncle told me and I cried an awful lot." Mr De Groot jr. was only 11 years old and the murder turned his life upside down. "Our whole family was torn apart. My mother couldn’t cope. Emotionally I was on my own after that." A couple of years later, he was placed with foster parents.
After the war, Heinrich Boere was arrested and sent to the southern Province of Limburg to do forced labour. He escaped and went into hiding in the Netherlands and later fled across the border to Germany. In 1949, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a Dutch court for the murder of three Dutch civilians, one of them was Teun de Groot. His sentence was later commuted to life.”
Safe in Germany
Boere has, however, not served a day of his sentence. He knew he was safe at his home in the small town of Eschweiler near Cologne in Germany. It was 1980 before his past caught up with him. The Netherlands requested his extradition, but this was refused after a few years of legal wrangling. The German authorities cited a 1943 decree in which Adolf Hitler gave all members of the SS German nationality. Boere was able to escape prison in the Netherlands because, under German law, its citizens cannot be extradited.
At the time, he was also not brought to trial in Germany itself. Detlef Hartmann is Teun de Groot’s lawyer. He is still angry at the position adopted by the German justice authorities in the 1980s: “Judicial proceedings were suspended in 1984. The public prosecutor decided that reprisal measures such as the Operation Silbertanne murders were not culpable because the Dutch Resistance had also done terrible things. That sort of argument is too ridiculous for words.”
The case was only reopened in 2003, when the Netherlands requested that Boere should serve his sentence in Germany. The German authorities also turned this request down. They did, however, agree to start new proceedings against him. This time the public prosecutor in charge of the case was Ulrich Maass, a generation younger than his colleagues from the 1980s. “I see it differently from them,” he says, explaining the differing positions. It still took another few years before it was decided whether the geriatric Boere was well enough to stand trial. The German Constitutional Court has now come out with a definitive ‘yes’.
Strengthen the prosecution
Today, Wednesday, was to be the biggest day of Mr De Groot’s life: “A really special day. The day I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It’s fantastic that he’s going to appear before a judge. And a German judge at that.” Mr De Groot is the official secondary prosecutor in the trial, with the right to read the court papers and even address the court. “I hope to strengthen the prosecution case and give the family’s side of the story. I will definitely have something to say to Boere himself.” With today’s adjournment, he will have to wait a little longer to do this.
Boere does not deny being involved in the Operation Silbertanne murders. Last year, in an interview with the German weekly, Focus, he said: “Yes, I got rid of those people. I had to do it.” On the question of whether he found it difficult to pull the trigger, he answered: “Oh no, it wasn’t hard. All I had to do was move my finger.”