The death of a young German sailor at the hands of a Nazi firing squad in the closing weeks of World War II has come back to haunt one of West Germany's most prominent conservative politicians and dash his hopes of some day becoming president.
In January 1945, Hans Filbinger was the prosecuting officer at a court martial in Nazi-occupied Norway. He sought and won a death verdict against a 22-year-old sailor, Walter Groeger, who was convicted of deserting his ship and planning on flee to neutral Sweden.
In March, seven weeks before the war ended, Groeger was shot. Filbinger watched and signed the death certificate.
Today, Filbinger, 64, is the Christian Democrat Governor of Baden-Wuerttemburg, West Germany's third most populous state, home of the fabled Black Forest and home of a decidedly conservative electorate that has reelected Filbinger three times in the last 12 years.
Disclosures about the Groeger case came as Filbinger began being promoted during the past-few weeks as a possible candidate for West Germany's presidency in 1979 at the end of President Walter Scheel's current term.
Though the presidency is mostly a ceremonial job, as opposed to the real political power invested in the chancellor's position, it is an importan platform for speech-making and foreign contacts. The president is elected by a special assembly of delegates whose makeup will be affected by four key state elections this year, the first two of which are next month.
Filbinger was probably not the first choice as a nominee of conservatives, should they win control of the assembly. His chances now are said to be zero.
Since the disclosure of his involvement in the Groeger case by irreverent German playwright Rolf Hochhutch in the mass-circulation weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel and the respected weekly newspater Die Zeit, Filbinger's political future seems shattered, as even his fellow party members admit privately.
The Filbinger episode, however, goes well beyond a situation,not uncommon in postwar history, in wich a Nazi past in linked with a prominent person. Filbinger was not a member of Hitler's Nazi Party.
Rather, his accusers are attempting to draw a line between Filbinger's alleged behavior as a person who willingly carried out Nazi orders without any feeling of repentance then and now and his stance today as a staunch law-and-order advocate.
Filbinger's popularity at home has to do in part with his very tough position on cracking down on terrorists, sympathizers and what he considers left-wing extremists. His state is a leader in applying the controversial "radicals decree" to week out Communists and other political radicals - normally from the left - from civil service.
Most recently a court in his state outraged Social Democrats around the country by ruling that membership in the ultra-right-wing National Democratic Party - frequently potrayed as a neo-Nazi breeding grounds - is not a barrier to a public service job.
The case therefore has strong left-right overstones for West German politics and also raises question about the timing of the disclosurers and the role played by the press in surfacing them now.
Accusations of a Nazi past are not new to Filbinger.
Six years ago. Der Spiegel disclosed that in May 1945, after the war ended, Filbinger, as a prisoner in a British POW camp, senteneed a fellow inmate to six months confinement within the camp for ripping a Nazi insignia off his uniform in front of German officers, refusing to take orders from them and shouting "You Nazi dogs" at them.
Filbinger later claimed the British had given him the task of maintaining discipline in the camp and issued the sentence with their approval. Those disclosures were made two weeks before the 1972 elections in Baden-Wuerrtemburg.
Filbinger does not dispute the facts in both the earlier and current disclosures, only the interpretation.
In the sailor's case, he argues that he was acting within the legal system of the time and that he was under pressure from Adm. Otto Schniewind to get the death sentence in a second trial after the admiral threw out the fist trial was held under a different prosecutor. Filbinger claims that resistance was futile and that he would have jeopardized his ability to help others by fighting it or appealing.
More than 25,000 German military personnel were sentenced to death by German military courts during the war.
The allegations have both embarrassed and angered the Christian Democratic Party. They see it as a campaign to discredit the governor and the party and have sought to maintain Filbinger's honor and portray him as an opponent of the Nazi regime who was a key figure in helping to rebuild Germany.
The episode is the second in recent months involving Christian Democrats.
In March, Justice Minister Hans Puvogel in the state of Lower Saxony turned in his resignation after it was disclosed that a university thesis the wrote 42 years ago supported castration laws and adopted the view that "only a racially valuable person is justified to exist within the community".
Filbinger built his post-war career around his own claims of anti-Nazi sentiments during the war and this appears to outrage his critics even more.
His critics point out that in the closing days of the war, many German officials, seeing the end coming, were able to resist or delay sentencing of crimes, or appeal them, to spare lives.
In fact, when Filbinger went to court in Stuttgart in his home estate this week to seek an injuction barring Hochhuth from repeating his charges, the court refused to prevent Houchhuth from claiming that Filbinger could have delayed the death sentency by an appeal without personal risk.
The court ruled only that Houchhuth must stop saying that Filibinger is only a free man today "because of the silence of others who knew him during the Nazi era."
Hochhuth, whose play "The Deputy" in the 1960s suggested Pope Pius XII turned his back on the wartime plight of Europe's Jews and who suggested in the play "The Soldiers" that Winston Churchill had the leader of the Free Polish forces assassinated, is the enfant terrible of the German stage-stage.
He sees his role in the Filbinger case "to articulate the bad conscience of the nation." If Filibinger disagreed with the admiral and allowed the sailor to die, then he was "an obedient coward" who would at least have had the same defense in postwar German courts as did former SS oficers. But if he thought the boy a dishonorable criminal, then he was simply "a sadistic lawyer," Hochhuth said.
"It is not a case of accusing Filbinger of being a Nazi," added Theo Sommer, the editor of Die Zeit. Rather it is that Filbinger, "the self-proclaimed anti-Nazi, acted as if he were a Nazi. Filibinger's sentences show unthoughtful, tradition-bound order-at-any-price. Filibinger was a follow-through for the Feuhrer, as Hochhuth puts it. He was a servant of the terror-state.
"Had be admitted his mistakes," Sommer continued, "it would be easier to defend him. But since he has not changed, he feels justified. He denies all guilt."
"The political circumstances have changed, but Filibinger stays the same," Sommer said. "There is a direct line from the 1945 sentences to the Filibinger of today. Then, he eas not a Nazi. Today, he is only n authoritarian democrat. Discipline and order was his motto then, law and order today."
Still, Sommer writes, people in the know believe there are many more folders in the files similar to Filibinger's. Is that reason enough to chase after him, he asks.
"No, not at all. But it gives us reason to think about historical guilt.
"Who of the older generation should throw the fist stone . . . and who of the young generation could say with certainly that he would have had the strength to withstand the system, he asks.
"Each one of us has to say, shudderingly . . . there but for the grace ofGod go I."