THIRTY-FOUR YEARS after the end of World War II, West Germany is still prosecuting Nazi crimes and criminals with tenacity and diligence. By voting to abolish the statute of limitations for murder, the German Bundestag has reaffirmed a longstanding national judgment on those wrongs.
In dealing with the moral debris of the early 1940s, most of the postwar governments pursued the most notorious cases rapidly and then, equally rapidly, closed the books. The argument usually held that further investigations would be harmful to national unity, and no useful purpose could be served by reopening controversies belonging to another time - etc., etc. The leading exception to that doctrine is West Germany.
It is true that the almost unimaginable enormity of the Nazi's crimes gives them a special place in the world's consideration.But it is also true that German courts have followed the threads of evidence to lengths that, in 1945, very few people would have thought possible. The statute would have cut off next January any further prosecution of wartime murders, and a good many Germans were irritated by the intense foreign campaign to repeal it. To some Germans, that campaign constituted interference in their domestic affairs. But no wise government ignores what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." The United States learned the value of that precept once again, and at great cost, in the Vietnam War.
The Bundestag's vote would have been right even if it could be safely presumed that all the offenders of the Nazi period were dead. But some unknown number of them are still around. By this vote, West Germany has spared itself and its friends the undignified and indecent spectacle of the emergence into legal sanctuary of people who, since 1945, have had good reason to lie very low. One or two might have chosen to come home, publicly, from jungle hideouts in South America. Others, living anonymously in Germany, might have decided that it was safe to do a little boasting. Other countries, including this one, have occasionally turned away from the consideration of wartime offenses with the excuse that circumstances have changed. The postwar Germans have held to a more rigorous idea of the law.