MUNICH, Aug 11 – A court jailed a 90-year-old former German army commander for life on Tuesday for ordering a massacre of Italian civilians in 1944, in one of Germany’s last major Nazi war crimes trials.
The court in the southern city of Munich convicted Josef Scheungraber for the murder of 10 people in a mass killing that ultimately claimed the lives of 14 residents of Falzano di Cortona in Tuscany.
"Josef Scheungraber was the only officer in the company" of soldiers who carried out the murders in retaliation for an attack by Italian partisans that killed two German soldiers, presiding judge Manfred Goetzl said.
Scheungraber, at the time the commander of Gebirgs-Pionier-Bataillon 818, a mountain infantry battalion, had been charged with 14 counts of murder and one of attempted murder.
He was only convicted of 10 murders due to a lack of evidence.
"They were without any doubt civilians, farmers and the sons of farmers," Goetzl said, adding that the German soldiers had been driven by "vengeance, hate and rage against partisans who killed two of their soldiers".
The prosecution had demanded a life sentence for Scheungraber, who had spent the decades since the war in the sleepy Bavarian town of Ottobrunn, running a woodworking shop and taking part in marches in memory of fallen Nazi soldiers.
His defence attorneys called for his acquittal, citing contradictions in witness testimony on the events 65 years on. They said they would appeal the sentence.
Scheungraber, dressed in a traditional Bavarian jacket, is hard of hearing and walks with a cane but appeared alert and in good health as he listened to the verdict against him.
Residents of Falzano di Cortona and descendants of the victims, in the courtroom as the verdict was read, applauded the sentence.
"This is a very important judgement for our families and for our loved ones who cannot be here," said Angiola Lescai, 60, who lost a grandfather and an uncle in the massacre.
"It also sends a message for the future — that certain things must not be allowed to happen and in the end, when they do, someone bears personal responsibility."
"For 65 years, we have been waiting for truth and justice," Mayor Andrea Vignini said earlier, adding that many of the victims’ families had moved away from the town because they could not bear the memories of the massacre.
After two German soldiers were killed in a partisan attack in Cortona, Nazi troops gunned down a 74-year-old woman and three men in the street on June 26, 1944, with Allied troops just a few kilometres (miles) away.
The soldiers then forced 11 males aged between 15 and 66 into the ground floor of a farmhouse which they then blew up.
Only the youngest, Gino Massetti, survived, but with serious injuries. Six decades later and an old man himself, Massetti testified during the Italian trial.
Scheungraber had been sentenced in absentia in September 2006 to life imprisonment by an Italian military tribunal in La Spezia.
The La Spezia court has tried several former Nazis in absentia but none had been brought to justice, with Germany as a rule not extraditing its citizens without their consent.
Scheungraber had told the Munich court that he handed the 11 males over to the military police, after which he "never heard what happened to them".
He is expected to be one of the last cases in Germany dealing with atrocities of the Nazi era.
One other case pending is that of John Demjanjuk, a 89-year-old Nazi death camp guard deported in May from the United States who has been charged with accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews.
Last month he was declared fit to stand trial.