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Klaus Konrad

Politician on trial for war crimes

Klaus Konrad, politician: born Berlin 22 December 1914; married (three children); died Scharbeutz, Germany 17 August 2006.

As the Germans retreated in Italy after the collapse of the Fascist regime in 1943, they were harried by Italian partisans. The Germans and the local Fascists struck back, often killing indiscriminately. In one such incident, in July 1944, Klaus Konrad, lieutenant of the 274th infantry regiment of the German army, was one of three officers in charge of a unit ordered to free 19 German soldiers who had been captured by partisans.

His unit was engaged in a heavy firefight near the village of Pietramala, in Tuscany. The villagers were taken to the nearby village of San Polo, where six suspected partisans were shot instantly. After several hours of interrogation and torture, 48 men were killed. At the time, British military investigators found that 16 of the victims had been buried alive. Bodies were blown up in an attempt to hide the evidence of torture. According to one report, the dead included children and women, one of whom was pregnant.

In post-war Germany, Konrad built up a successful legal and political career, serving as a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, from 1969 to 1980. When he became the subject of war-crimes investigations, his case was all the more shocking because he had appeared to be the epitome of the honest German army (not SS) officer and later left-of-centre SPD politician, and was an associate of the Chancellor, Willy Brandt. His colleagues found it difficult to believe the accusations against him. Others thought it was time to end the war-crimes investigations, especially against soldiers who were acting under orders and fighting against irregulars.

Born in Berlin in 1914, Konrad studied Law and Politics there. Apparently, he applied to join the Nazi party (the NSDAP), but did not follow it up. He qualified as a lawyer in 1941 and was appointed to a post within the state legal service in the following year. In early 1945, as a lieutenant of the reserve and regiment's adjutant, he was wounded.

After the Second World War, he worked as a labourer, and later resumed his legal career in Eutin, Schleswig-Holstein. It was a state in which many former Nazis sought, and found, sanctuary. Konrad joined the SPD, then the largest party there, in 1949, and was rewarded with election to the regional - Land - parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, in which he served from 1962 to 1969.

In the decisive federal election of 1969, which resulted in the narrow victory of Brandt's SPD, Konrad entered the federal parliament and was appointed SPD spokesman of environmental affairs. For some time he was one of Brandt's legal advisers. He was awarded the order of merit first class of the Federal Republic. By that time, rumours and doubts about his past had surfaced.

In 1969, the Giessen state prosecution service had started to examine the case against seven soldiers, including Konrad, and continued with it until 1972. (Giessen was responsible, because their commander lived within Giessen's area of jurisdiction.) The prosecutors concluded that this was not a crime of murder but merely manslaughter ("Totschlag") and that, by then, under German law, it was no longer prosecutable as it came under a statute of limitations. Konrad seemed to be in the clear.

But the massacre was not forgotten in Italy. A box containing 700 documents relating to the massacre, which had gone missing in the Italian military court in Rome, probably for political reasons, resurfaced in the 1990s. In 2004, the Italian military prosecutor's office in La Spezia took up the case against Konrad.

He resigned from various honorary positions he held in the SPD. In a German television interview in 2004, he admitted to having been present when the civilians were tortured. He expressed regret for the killings, but said he had done so "erst, seit die Italiener mich am Kanthaken haben" - "only since the Italians have got me by the scruff of the neck".

The trial against Konrad for war crimes opened in Italy on 22 March, although he did not attend. He was suspended from his SPD membership in the same month.

David Childs