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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Tens of thousands of German soldiers defied the Nazis during World War Two, and they were convicted of treason. This month Germany overturned their sentences. The move comes too late for most of the fighters. Almost all of them were executed, or died in concentration camps, or were killed in so-called death battalions during the war. Still, exonerating these rebellious ranks has symbolic importance for a country that's still dealing with its Nazi past. The World's Gerry Hadden met one of the three surviving German traitors.
GERRY HADDEN: It was 1942 in German-occupied France. A 21-year-old German sailor named Ludwig Baumann was stationed in the port of Bordeaux. His assignment was to pace the deck scanning the sea for enemy boats. He had a lot of time to think, he says, and that's when he began to question Hitler's war.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] I was non-political at the time, but whenever I heard Hitler on the radio demanding more room for our people in the east I wondered, what about the people already living there? Are they going to be destroyed or what? Then our army began invading country after country. I saw newsreels of hundreds of soviet prisoners huddling in a field in winter. I thought, those people are surely going to freeze to death. I didn't want to be part of this great crime. I just wanted to live.
GERRY HADDEN: In Bordeaux Baumann and another young sailor named Kurt Oldenburg became friends with some of the French dockworkers. When the Germans told them they were thinking of deserting, the French offered to help.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] One night after dark we left the ship. Our French friends were waiting for us in a truck around the corner. They gave us civilian clothes and Basque hats, and drove us to the no man's land between occupied and non-occupied France. They dropped us there and drove back to town.
GERRY HADDEN: The plan was to slip past German patrols and reach a safe house, then continue on to Morocco and finally to the United States.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] But unfortunately we walked right into the arms of a German patrol. We had our side arms locked and loaded. We could have shot them right there on the spot but we couldn't bring ourselves to do it. They took us back to base and that's where our suffering began.
GERRY HADDEN: Like tens of thousands of German deserters, Baumann and Oldenburg were sentenced to death by a military court. Awaiting execution, they spent the next several months in prison where they were starved and tortured.
GERRY HADDEN: Baumann is eighty-eight years old today. His wartime story does not end in prison, but the frail, white-haired man takes a break from the telling. He's still traumatized by his
experiences, he says, as he prepares coffee for visitors at his modest home in the suburbs of Bremen.
GERRY HADDEN: He then pulls out two documents. One, his death sentence, the other his pardon. After a year on death row his sentence and Oldenburg's were commuted. But it wasn't clemency. The two had been assigned to one of Hitler's death battalions. They were to be sent on suicide missions designed to hold off the Soviet army.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] Hitler once said, German soldiers at the front might die, but the deserters must die.
GERRY HADDEN: The death battalions were usually wiped out in a matter of weeks. The troops were forced out into the torched fields and towns the retreating Nazi's left behind. Baumann says they became cannon fodder.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] One day we were under siege in a vast wasteland of ashes in Belarus. Most of us were killed, including my good friend Kurt Oldenburg. I only escaped because I was badly wounded and sent to the hospital.
GERRY HADDEN: Baumann took a bullet in the back defending the very army he'd tried to desert. When the war was over, he figured he'd paid for his crime on the battlefield, but that was not the case.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] On the contrary, we were called cowards and deserters. I myself received threatening phone calls at home, my father too. He died of a broken heart. I myself, I took to drinking.
GERRY HADDEN: Baumann says even German civilians who'd opposed the Nazis branded him a traitor. German historian Wolfgang Eichweder says such treatment was common.
WOLFGANG EICHENWEDER: Because in the public memory of Germany, in the fourth decades after the Second World War, we made a strong difference between the regime of Hitler and the German army. A lot have been convinced for lot of years, that the German army has acted as normal soldiers. That means more or less in an honorable sense.
GERRY HADDEN: Ludwig Baumann's honor seemed lost forever. In the decades after his father's death, he was shunned by society. He didn't get sober until he was widowed and left with six kids to raise. He joined Germany's peace movement, and founded an association called The Victims of Nazi Justice. He fought to clear his name but encountered obstacles. For years various German governments argued that desertion was an official crime at the time and therefore the convictions must stand. The second argument, Baumann says, struck him as scandalous.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] It went like this: an act of treason might have endangered the lives of other German soldiers, therefore we can't absolve you. But what I say is, if only more soldiers had committed treason so many millions of lives could have been saved, in the concentration camps and so on. You can't place the lives of some soldiers above all those millions who died. And until Germany recognizes this, it will not have broken with its Nazi past.
GERRY HADDEN: Germany has in fact recognized this. Last month, it finally overturned the Nazi traitors' convictions. Today Baumann is the only ex-convict left to relish this final legal victory, two others are still alive but suffer from severe senility. Baumann says there's been no celebration.
LUDWIG BAUMANN: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH] There was no one left to witness the reversal of the sentences. All of them are dead, executed. But these were people who morally and ethically acted in an honorable fashion. Some of them hid Jews or helped prisoners. They took great risks, so they should be especially honored. For us to be the last group of victims to have our sentences reversed is an outrage.
GERRY HADDEN: An outrage, he says, that it took more than half a century. But Baumann says this was his dream. His honor has been restored. For The World I'm Gerry Hadden, Bremen, Germany.