VIENNA (Jan. 27)
The return to his native country of Austrian-born Nazi war criminal Walter Reder last Thursday following his release from an Italian prison after nearly 40 years’ incarceration has touched off the worst political storm in Austria’s recent history.
But it is Defense Minister Friedhelm Frischenschlager who is at the center of the turmoil for personally greeting the 69-year-old former SS officer with military honors when he landed on Austrian soil, extending to him what seemed almost a hero’s welcome.
Frischenschlager’s action has been repudiated by most of his fellow ministers in the Socialist-led coalition government and fiercely condemned by parties across the political spectrum, including members of the Defense Minister’s own conservative faction; by organizations of Nazi victims, Jewish and non-Jewish; and by the Jewish community among others. His immediate resignation or dismissal has been demanded.
WELCOME CALLED A’ GRAVE MISTAKE’
Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, leader of the ruling Socialist Party, called Frischenschlager’s welcome of Reder a “grave mistake” in a statement Friday. He said the Defense Minister had not informed him of his intention to greet Reder and has demanded a detailed report.
Reder, a former SS Obersturmbannfuehrer — the equivalent of Major — was responsible for the mass murder of civilians in Nazi-occuped Italy in 1944. An Italian court sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1954. In 1980, another court reduced his sentence and Reder was to have completed it on July 15, 1985.
AUSTRIA SOUGHT REDER’S EARLY RELEASE
Ironically, it was the Austrian government authorities who petitioned the Italian government for the early release of Reder — six months before expiration of his sentence — on humanitarian grounds. The Austrian request generated intense controversy in Italy where 40 years ago Reder led the massacre of 1,830 men, women and children in the north Italian village of Marzabotto in retaliation for partisan attacks on German troops.
But the Italians acceded. Prime Minister Bettino Craxi granted a pardon to Reder shortly after a public assembly in Marzabotto voted 231-1 against clemency. The vote was not binding. Craxi stressed humanitarian reasons, saying the remembrance of the massacre “does not need an old man locked into a fort in order to stay live in our hearts.”
Reder, reportedly in poor health, was held in the prison fortress of Gaeta in southern Italy. Last Thursday he was flown in an Italian military aircraft to Graz, Austria. There, according to the international rules governing prisoners of war, he was handed over to Austrian military authorities.
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