For the first time in postwar Germany, the country’s president has taken back a prestigious state award — because the laureate turned out to be a former SS officer.
The Federal Cross of Excellence, one of the highest awards in Germany, was given in 1983 to man known as Dr. Hans Schwerte, chancellor of the Rhine Westfalia Technic High School, for his contributions to German studies at the German university.
But Schwerte will now have to return the award because he did his Nazi past.
Schwerte, 85, was born Hans Ernst Schneider in the former German city of Konigsberg, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad.
He had served as an SS officer during World War II, when, among other things, he was engaged in obtaining medical equipment for medical experiments performed on human beings at the Dachau concentration camp.
He eventually became a member of the general staff of the German SS, serving under Heinrich Himmler.
When the war ended, Schneider posed as a soldier who had been released from a British prisoner of war camp.
He adopted the name of Schwerte and began his academic year.
Along with the German honor, he was given accolades in Belgium, where he was named a member of the Officers Order of the Belgium Crown.
He was a popular lecturer among his students and had a leftish-liberal reputation. As head of the faculty of Germanic Studies, he founded a chair for Jewish-German literature.
“Do I have to repeat time and again that I feel incredibly co-guilty for the fate of the Jews?” he said in a recent interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.
He might have lived out his years in quiet retirement, had it not been for anonymous letters that reached the university and the media, charging that he had adopted a false identify.
The university authorities made inquiries, but could come up with nothing.
It remained for a Dutch Television reporter to unveil his true identify, naming him as one of the SS officers in Holland who was responsible for “new order and supervision,” terms used for the police work of the SS against the local population in countries overrun by the Nazis.
Interviewed recently, Schneider admitted that he might have ordered medical equipment for Dachau, but said it was nothing more than a part of his regular duties.
Schneider insisted in the interview that he had not committed any war crimes during his service and that he had disguised his identity “only as a matter of protecting his family.”
The man who was once one of the darlings of the scientific community has now been disgraced.
President Roman Herzog announced last week that his Federal Cross of Excellence would be revoked, and Anke Brunn, minister of science, many also revoke his professorship.
During his interview with Der Spiegel, Schneider questioned why his postwar accomplishments had to be overshadowed by his wartime actions.
“I have rehabilitated myself in an orderly way,” he said. “Was all of that a lie?”