Germany, which earned admiration for the way it confronted its postwar Holocaust legacy, now is being accused of perpetrating a double injustice after disclosures that up to 50,000 former members of the Nazis' SS paramilitary police units are receiving compensation for war injuries while many of their victims get nothing.
Amid anguished complaints from Jewish groups around the world and expressions of outrage at home, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government has acknowledged that wounded SS veterans and their dependents -- including 3,377 in the United States -- have been able to collect up to $400 million a year from the German treasury.
Friedrich Bohl, Kohl's chief of staff, said today that "the German government and parliament are looking for ways to bar war criminals from receiving war-victim pensions."
At the same time, Germany has rejected, and rejected again today, demands to start paying pensions to survivors of Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who are seeking compensation for their suffering after being neglected during decades of communist rule.
While Holocaust victims in the West are entitled to a monthly pension of $300 under the criteria of a special claims agreement reached in 1992, Germany has sought to address the plight of those in the East through lump-sum payments to their governments -- with the result that the most destitute victims often wind up with little or no financial help.
The dual controversy over wartime compensation payments appears to have damaged Germany's reputation for dealing with matters of guilt, reparations and historic responsibility for the devastation wrought in its name a half century ago by Adolf Hitler's armies. When chosen as Bonn's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer declared the new Germany would be judged above all by how it treated its victims.
"It's hard to understand the position of the Kohl government," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European affairs for the American Jewish Committee, in a telephone interview. "Germany has done a much better job than France, Austria or Switzerland in facing up to its wartime past. So it's all the more bewildering why Bonn seems ready to squander its good name by not rectifying these injustices."
The compensation furor erupted early this year when a German television documentary revealed that among more than 1 million people now getting wartime pensions of up to $600 per month were members, or widows, of SS units branded as criminal by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.
Gerhard Schreiber, a military historian at Freiburg University, said about 5 percent of the pensioners, or 50,000 people, would qualify as war criminals under the Nuremberg legal definition.
The loophole allowing the payments was built into a 1950 law passed by West Germany's parliament that decreed any veteran injured in World War II was a "victim" of the conflict, eligible for state assistance. The legislators debated whether to exclude "war criminals" or "politically incriminated persons," but decided that pensions should not be a tool of punishment.
As a result, dependents of top Nazi leaders killed in the war have managed to qualify for pensions. They include the widows of Reinhard Heydrich, who was responsible for carrying out the "final solution" of exterminating the Jews in Europe as prescribed at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, and Roland Freisler, president of the Nazi "people's courts." But the widows of those who conspired against Hitler receive nothing.
Another bizarre case involves Heinz Barth, an 80-year-old former Nazi SS officer serving a life sentence in a German jail for his role in the June 1944 massacre of hundreds of civilians in the French town of Oradour. He was sentenced by an East German court, but when West German law was imposed after the 1990 reunification he qualified for a $450 monthly payment because he lost a leg during the war.
In Latvia and other East European countries occupied by the Nazis, hundreds of SS veterans recruited by the Nazis continue to receive several hundred dollars a month from the German government. In contrast, Jewish ghetto or death camp survivors have received nothing because their individual claims have not been accepted by the Bonn government.
In response to a request by U.S. Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Kohl's office has sent the Justice Department a list of the 3,377 recipients of German war pensions now living in the United States. Those entitled to receive such benefits are persons who suffered damage to their health as a result of war service, as well as their dependents -- roughly half the total. All of these names will be reviewed to determine if any are liable for war crimes, Justice Department officials say. Bohl, the chancellor's aide, noted today that it would not be fair to deny pensions to all members of the Waffen SS, which included concentration camp guards, because, unlike the infamous "Death's-head" units, they were not all judged guilty of criminal acts.
"The Waffen SS was not just made up of voluntary members, but many of these soldiers were Germans and foreigners who were forcibly recruited into their ranks," Bohl said.
Bohl insisted that the German government is not prepared to undertake any further efforts in offering pensions to Nazi victims in Eastern Europe. He said the German government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since 1991 in state-to-state settlements with Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and it is now up to these governments to cope with the claims of their Holocaust victims.