There is one SS mass murderer who is not buried at Bitburg. His name is Franz Murer and he is enjoying his old age in freedom on his farm in Styria in his native Austria. His victims were the Jews of the Vilna ghetto.
Tried for his crimes in the Soviet Union — where he was convicted — and re-tried in Austria — where he was acquitted — Murer’s repeated escapes from justice were hardly a matter of luck. It is attributable to the willingness of many of his fellow-Austrians not only to forgive and forget but actually to embrace one of the most vicious criminals of the Holocaust.
It is such attitudes that many Jews and non-Jews fear will be encouraged — albeit unwittingly — by President Reagan’s visit today to the military cemetery at Bitburg where some 47 members of the notorious Waffen SS are buried along with other German war dead.
Murer, like Hitler, an Austrian by birth, joined the SS in 1938. From 1941-1943 he served as aide to the area commander in Vilna and was responsible for the forced labor of Jews. According to survivors, he was also responsible for their mass slaughter.
The British army captured Murer after the war and handed him over to the Russians in whose jurisdiction his crimes were committed. In 1948 he faced a Soviet military court in Vilna, was convicted and sentenced to death. But his sentence was soon commuted to 25 years at hard labor. In 1955, after the signing of the Austrian State Treaty which ended the four-power occupation of that country, Murer was sent back to Austria where he was to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
But he did not. The Austrian Ministry of Justice ruled that the proceedings against Murer were closed because he had already been tried in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the Ministry initiated a motion for a new trial. Murer, meanwhile, had become a leader of a local chapter of a farmers Conservative Party.
He war re-arrested in 1961. Coincidentally, the trial of Nazi war ciminal Adolf Eichmann was then underway in Jerusalem. Farmers in Murer’s home village demonstrated in his behalf. They were convinced that, like Eichmam, he had been kidnapped by Israeli agents.
After two years of pre-trial confinement, Murer again faced a court. He was charged with 15 specific murders. Later, based on the testimony of witnesses, the number was raised to 17.
EMOTIONAL ATMOSPHERE AT THE TRIAL
Contemporary newspaper accounts reported an extremely emotional atmosphere at Murer’s trial. Witnesses, survivors of the Vilna ghetto, burst into tears as they recounted how Murer cold-bloodedly shot members of their families. The public prosecutor urged the jury to judge Murer as if he had murdered their own children or close relatives.
“We have to prove that the past is past in Austria and that anybody who kills, regardless of the race of the victim, will be punished,” the prosecutor said.
The jury did not get the message. He was acquitted. According to witnesses at the trial, some of the jurors joined Murer at a nearby restaurant afterwards for a drink to celebrate his acquittal. The public prosecutor appealed the verdict. It seemed for a time there might be a new trial. But in 1974 the proceedings were formally and permanently closed.
Justice was not entirely defeated. Two of Murer’s direct subordinates, SS officers Martin Weiss and Walter Hering, were convicted of war crimes in 1949 in Wuertzburg, West Germany, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
There is an ironic footnote to the story. Murer’s son, Gerulf, entered politics, not in his father’s Conservative Party but as a member of the Liberal-Right Freedom Party. Today he is a Secretary of State in the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.