Leading Article: A crime that must not be forgotten

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The Independent Online
THE MASSACRE of more than 80 British prisoners of war at Wormhoudt, near Dunkirk, in May 1940 was a minor war crime by the standards of the Nazis at that time. But it is unforgivable and should still be pursued. The problem is that there is insufficient evidence against the obvious culprit, General Wilhelm Mohnke.

No one seriously doubts his guilt. He was a captain in command of the SS battalion that carried out the killings, and all the available evidence points to his personal responsibility. He is also suspected of the murders of American and Canadian prisoners in 1944. This record doubtless helped to earn him promotion to the command of Hitler's bunker in the last days of the war.

But even the lengthy investigation completed in 1947 by the British War Crimes Interrogation Unit, which was made public yesterday, fails to offer sufficient evidence to ensure a conviction. That is why the German authorities, who were given access to the material some time ago, announced last month that they would not be proceeding against Mohnke. Probably he could have been tried at Nuremberg, but he was in a Russian prison.

The anger and frustration of the few surviving victims is understandable. Here is an almost certain murderer living on a comfortable pension, protected by the silence of his surviving colleagues and the paucity of evidence from other sources. Obviously the suspicion arises that the German prosecutor in Lubeck, who is responsible for the case, has shown insufficient determination. But this is not necessarily true. If he has no more evidence than was collected with great diligence by the British in 1947, he is in no position to start proceedings. The fact that he seems to have allowed a medical certificate to deter him from interviewing Mohnke looks bad, but Mohnke has had much practice in denying everything.

That need not, however, be quite the end of the matter. The reasons for pursuing war crimes are not only to avenge the victims and punish the guilty, but also to deter future perpetrators. Politics is involved, as well as the law. The horrors in Bosnia and the further spread of ethnic conflict make it all the more necessary to demonstrate that war crimes are never forgotten.

The German authorities should first interrogate Mohnke and then put out a much more detailed report on the evidence against him and their reasons for not proceeding. This would also help to reassure those who are anxiously watching the new, united Germany for its reaction to nationalism and neo-Nazism.