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Of Nazis, Crimes and Punishment

NASHVILLE — Two weeks ago, the U.S. government deported Friedrich Karl Berger, a longtime resident of Oak Ridge, Tenn., for participating in Nazi war crimes. Mr. Berger was returned to Germany, where authorities have declined to press charges of their own. He had lived in the United States since 1959.

The crime for which he was deported took place in the winter of 1945, during the last months of World War II, when Mr. Berger was 19 years old. According to the Justice Department, he was an armed guard at a satellite site of Neuengamme, a concentration camp near Meppen. His assignment was to supervise the prisoners digging armored trenches in deadly winter weather. When the Nazis were forced to withdraw, he guarded the surviving prisoners on a nearly two-week march back to the main camp. The evacuation alone killed some 70 people.

At his trial last year, Mr. Berger acknowledged working as a security guard at the subcamp. But he denied guarding the evacuation march, denied witnessing any mistreatment of prisoners, denied knowing of any deaths at the camps themselves. Nevertheless, a federal immigration judge in Memphis ruled that Mr. Berger’s “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” amounted to a war crime.

At 95, Mr. Berger has had ample time — and achieved ample maturity — to examine his own conscience and repent of his own actions, but he appears to believe he did nothing wrong. Or perhaps he only believes that actions in the distant past no longer warrant repercussion: “After 75 years, this is ridiculous. I cannot believe it,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I cannot understand how this can happen in a country like this. You’re forcing me out of my home.”


Mr. Berger was 19 when he marched 70 people to their deaths outside Meppen, Germany, in 1945. If he had committed that crime at the same age in the United States today, he would most likely face the death penalty in states, including Tennessee, that still offer juries that horrific option. He definitely would not have married and raised a family in a small town. He definitely would not have been given 75 years’ worth of ordinary days in which to carry out a meaningful life — working hard, being neighborly, contributing to the community.

It’s easier for me to feel mercy for the not-quite-adults sentenced to death row, even if they committed hideous crimes, when I know that they grew up in homes where no one protected them when they were frightened or fed them when they were hungry. Especially when I know that they have learned to live exemplary lives in prison.

It’s much harder to know how to think about the young Friedrich Karl Bergers who stood silent while innocent people were worked to death on their watch, even if they have lived good lives in the years since. Neuroscience tells us that they deserve the same understanding as the young offenders sentenced to death row for drug violence, but I can’t seem to find any understanding in my heart for the young Nazis.

Read entire article at New York Times