Imagine I just accused you of being a Nazi war criminal.
“Not me!” you say. “Nazi war criminals are evil old men who show up as plot devices in Hollywood thrillers, or are suddenly discovered in exotic countries like Argentina! They’re monsters! Abominations! They all deserve a violent death at the hands of Brad Pitt or another appropriately Americanized protagonist!”
At this point (if I was feeling outrageous), I’d start drawing squiggles in the dirt at my feet. For those of you who didn’t get that rather esoteric reference, drawing in the dust is what Jesus does before (and after) recommending that “the one who has never sinned throw the first stone” at the adulterer during a famous interaction on the Mt. of Olives.
Why would I begin playing with dirt? Because I feel that we should steal a page from Jesus’ playbook and begin questioning whether we still have the understanding to judge ‘Nazi war criminals’ or even remember what the technicalities of that charge are.
And why, by all that is holy, am I writing a post about Nazi war crimes?
Because I read a play last week.
It was titled ‘Refuge of Lies’ and was the product of a Vancouver playwright named Ron Reed. The play is a fictional reinterpretation of the 1992 trial of Jacob Luitjens, a husband, a Christian, a botany instructor at UBC, and a former member of the Dutch Nazi party. Luitjens was eventually convicted and deported to Holland, where he served a couple years in prison and now lives without a nationality (the Dutch didn’t want him either).
The trial was a controversial one in Vancouver, more controversial than many might assume from the sparse facts I’ve provided. Luitjen’s church spoke of reconciliation and forgiveness, the Canadian B’nai Brith (Jewish service and advocacy organization) was obviously for justice and punishment, and the general public were on the spectrum in between. Most gravitated towards justice and punishment, but really, who wants to stand behind an individual accused of Nazi war crimes?
In our day and age, we’ve been exposed to so much propaganda through popular literature, television, and cultural reinforcement that we’ve almost ceased to ask questions regarding the validity of a ‘war crimes’ accusation. Similarly, ‘Nazi’ is a universally damning label. Some might consider me insane to even question the conventions, yet I’m going to do so.
For the record, I condemn both war and war crimes. I wept my way through the halls of Yad Vashem, and I am in no way trying to diminish the suffering of the victims of the Nazi regime. I believe in justice as much as anybody, I may just have a different perception of what ‘justice’ is.
First of all, Luitjens was not a ‘Nazi” in the traditional sense of the term. He was, according to all accounts, a ‘collaborator’ who was involved before the war in a fascist group in the Netherlands. It’s important to remember that the word ‘fascist’ signifies an autocratic, expansionist regime but does not historically assume any system of racial beliefs (the Nazis were the first to merge that component into their ideology). As well, fascist groups were formed in most countries in Europe in the 1930s, many in direct response to the ‘communist threat’ and economic fallout of the Depression.
Luitjens therefore, was not necessarily a racist, a bigot, or some kind of personified devil just because he joined a fascist group. There are many reasons why he could have joined such a group, and many would have been quite compelling to ‘normal’ individuals at the time. The real trouble occurred in 1940 when he chose to collaborate with the Nazis in their occupation of his homeland, thereby creating a narrative that could be retro-engineered into the story of a national traiter.
Yet once again, there are significant assumptions within this narrative. The world’s perception of Nazism in 1940 was very different than it was a year or two later. In the 30’s many political leaders (including Canada’s own Mackenzie King) were very impressed by the economic and social resurrection of Hitler’s Germany, and while war obviously created enemies, many individuals were still undecided. Some chose to welcome the Germans, having to decide, like Luitjens whether to side with the Nazis because of ideological sympathies, or patriotically resist them. Luitjens obviously made the wrong choice, but in 1940 Europe, with its martial traditions and latent anti-Semitism, it would have been very difficult to discern which choice was ‘right’. History, as any professor will tell you, is not a river flowing inevitably towards a predetermined conclusion, but instead a dynamic matrix of continually shifting possibilities. We know now that the Nazi ideology was evil, murderous, and (most important) to the formation of our modern biases) defeated, but why do we project those sensibilities upon the choices of individuals living through the events in question?
Wikipedia will tell you that Jacob Luitjens was nicknamed “the terror of Roden” (a city in the Netherlands), but nothing as to how he gained that moniker. Further research will suggest that he helped the Nazis track down a few resistance fighters and possibly members of the Dutch Jewish population, although I haven’t been able to find much on either of these accusations. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Holland in 1948 (presumably when such evidence was still fresh) and spent the following decades in Paraguay and then Canada evading this sentence. Without access to the original trial materials it’s obviously hard to make any authoritative statements about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of the charges, but I am free to do some speculation.
The definition of ‘war criminal’ in its modern sense was largely created by the Nuremburg Trials in the mid to late ‘40s, and represented a paradigm shift in the understanding of the ideology and waging of war. Obviously the atrocities committed by the Nazis compelled some sort of international legal response (in the form of the International Military Tribunal), but they also begged the question of who exactly was a war criminal. German leadership? The German army? Every Nazi? Every German?
Tragically or thankfully, the beginnings of the Cold War ended political and public enthusiasm for pursuit of further judicial revenge, but it didn’t deter countries like Holland from pursuing their own ‘war criminals.’ Many like Luitjens bore the brunt of public outrage against the brutality of the Nazi regime, but one has to wonder whether ‘war criminal’ became simply a synonym for ‘loser’ in the eyes of the court.
Under Nazi occupation, every Dutch resistance fighter who continued to violently resist the Germans after the political surrender of the nation could be considered a ‘war criminal’. Luitjens, in pursuing and arresting them, was fully within the bounds of legality according to the regime in power. If the Nazis had carried the day, it would have been those resistance fighters who would have been on trial in 1948 and not Luitjens himself (assuming they ever made it to trial, which, considering Gestapo tactics, is not likely). I personally am thankful that the Nazis DID NOT carry the day, but I am puzzled by the modern phenomena of prosecuting one’s defeated enemies in the courts after prevailing in the field.
What is war really but one long horrendous sequence of crimes and atrocities? What makes Luitjens more of a criminal than Eisenhower, Mengele more of a monster than Oppenheimer? If the victors are able to decide ‘criminality’ simply because of their status as victors, than why do we, as intelligent, empathetic, beings, place such stigma upon the phrase “war criminal” without searching for the realities behind the accusation?
I do not have the evidence to argue that Luitjens was innocent or guilty of what we as a society have labeled ‘war crimes’, I simply have the arrogance to wonder.
P.S. Luitjens’ trial in Canada (which resulted in his deportation in 1992) ended with the ruling that he had concealed his war-time past from immigration officials when he had entered Canada decades before. Such omissions are considered criminal under Canadian law.
I was able to track down several articles ranging from 1988 to 1992 that were published in the Mennonite Reporter. As several Mennonite organizations (including Luitjens church) were pushing for reconciliation, the topic generated much discussion within the Mennonite community.
Here are a couple of those articles: