Although Alfons Gotzfried has confessed to the murder of up to 500 inmates of the Majdanek death camp in eastern Poland, he will probably not spend a day in jail. His trial could be the last held in Germany for crimes committed in the Second World War, as it illustrates how difficult it is to prosecute such cases so many years after the events.
There is little doubt of Gotzfried's guilt. According to his own account, he was present at the notorious "Operation Harvest Festival", a blood- bath that went on for two days at the Majdanek concetration camp in November 1943. He has admitted to shooting up to 500 inmates, during a massacre in which tens of thousands perished.
But the German prosecutors are charging him with only aiding and abetting, partly because he was only a small cog in the wheel of Nazi violence, but mainly because they are not certain whether Gotzfried has already been punished for his wartime crimes.
The evidence against him rests on his confession, which he yesterday promptly withdrew as he pleaded not guilty. He had been a simple horse groomer, he testified.
According to German records on war criminals, Gotzfried had served in the SS, and was a low-ranking member of staff on the Galician Security Police Command in Lublin. But details of Gotzfried's life after the war are sketchy. In 1947 he was sentenced by the Soviet authorities to 20 years for "treason". He spent 13 years of his sentence in a Siberian labour camp, before being freed and settled in Kazakhstan, the destination of most ethnic Germans.
He immigrated to Germany in 1991, and was given German nationality in the same year. He appears to have lived there undisturbed until 1996, when he was first summoned by Stuttgart prosecutors, to be questioned as a witness. A year later, he was called, again as a witness, to the national war crimes centre in Dortmund
It was while being questioned in Dortmund two years ago that Gotzfried is said to have unburdened himself, confessing to the "Harvest Festival" massacre and other killings. Gotzfried's trial is expected to last a month. If found guilty, his maximum sentence would be 15 years. However, the court would take into consideration his 13 years in Siberia and one year spent under pre-trial arrest.Reuse content