Ex-Nazi in War Crimes Case Freed on Technicality


In a lackluster ending to one of this country’s last attempts to prosecute World War II criminals, Germany’s highest criminal court ruled Wednesday that a former Nazi officer responsible for the 1943 massacre of 15 Italian civilians could not, for technical reasons, be punished.

The federal Criminal Appeals Court upheld a lower court ruling that Wolfgang Lehnigk-Emden, 72, had been involved in the killing of 15 women and children near the town of Caiazzo 52 years earlier, but he could not be convicted because the statute of limitations had run out.

Germany has no such limit for a murder charge today.

But until 1969, it did--a limit of 20 years, with some exceptions. In some contemporary cases, prosecutors still have convicted Germans who committed murders as long ago as the 1930s. But because of a complicated combination of legal factors, the court found that in Lehnigk-Emden’s case the old statute applied.


The freeing of a Nazi-era war criminal on a technicality brought disappointment in Germany and in American Nazi-hunting circles, and especially in Italy, where Lehnigk-Emden has already been sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment.

Since World War II’s end, there have been about 105,000 investigations of suspected Nazi criminals in Germany--excluding cases handled in the former East--and 6,500 of these investigations have led to sentences.

Investigators said Lehnigk-Emden’s unsuccessful prosecution was one of the last half a dozen such cases being handled in Germany.

The killings in Lehnigk-Emden’s case took place on Oct. 13, 1943, five weeks after Italy surrendered and the very day it declared war on Germany.

Lehnigk-Emden, then a lieutenant patrolling with a sergeant and a private, saw lights flashing in a Caiazzo house, assumed that they were signals for American troops--who were moving into the area--and captured and killed seven Italian partisans in the house. He later returned to the home and killed 15 women and children inside.

“It was not a murder. It was not a massacre,” he argued on German television after Wednesday’s ruling. “It was pure military necessity to attack the house.”

After the war, authorities tried to track him down in connection with the killings but were unable to find him because they had an incorrect spelling of his last name.

Meanwhile, he settled in the village of Ochtendung in West Germany and became a successful architect and small-town politician.

He was active in the left-of-center Social Democratic Party, chaired the local Mardi Gras organizing society and was decorated by the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

It was not until 1988 that a naturalized American citizen born in Caiazzo tracked him down using declassified U.S. military documents.