Page last updated at 16:40 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 17:40 UK

Nazi deserter hails long-awaited triumph

By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

For almost 20 years, Ludwig Baumann has been fighting for justice, determined to clear the names of all victims of Nazi military justice.

Ludwig Baumann
Ludwig Baumann was sentenced to death by the Nazis

After a long struggle, on Tuesday, the German parliament revoked the convictions of the last group of victims, those condemned as "war traitors," more than 60 years after the end of World War II.

Ludwig Baumann joined Hitler's Wehrmacht when he was 19, but he became a pacifist and in June 1942, he deserted, along with his friend Kurt Oldenburg, while they were deployed in France.

"I didn't want to take part in Hitler's war," Ludwig Baumann told the BBC.

"I realised it was a criminal and genocidal war," he said.

Despite his fearlessness, Mr Baumann was caught by the Nazis and sentenced to death for desertion. He was tortured, taken to concentration camps, and was lucky to avoid being executed.

"We were sentenced to death in Bordeaux. We were tortured while they kept us because we refused to tell the Nazis the names of our friends who helped us - the French resistance fighters," said Mr Baumann.

"After 10 months we were taken to a concentration camp and then to Torgau, a huge Wehrmacht prison. Around 1,300 of our people were shot dead or died there - and then we were taken to the Eastern Front.

"Most of our men died, including my friend Kurt Oldenburg. I managed to survive," he added.

Fight for dignity

After the war, Baumann says he faced abuse from many Germans who accused him of cowardice. The 87-year-old's conviction for desertion was among those finally annulled by the German parliament in 2002. But those people convicted of what the Nazis described as "wartime treason" were excluded from this ruling.

"After the war we were always regarded as cowards and traitors. Our opponents in the Bundestag argued that we couldn't be rehabilitated because that would be unjust for all soldiers, and they claimed it would be bad for soldiers' morale in the army," said Mr Baumann.

"We felt so humiliated. Most deserters and other victims of Nazi military justice died without dignity. But we didn't give up and we continued fighting for our dignity," he said.

According to historians, around 30,000 people were sentenced to death for desertion or treason by Nazi military tribunals during World War II, and some 20,000 were executed.

German troops march through occupied Paris
Ludwig Baumann and others deserted while deployed to occupied France

Mr Baumann says the men who were described as "wartime traitors" were not traitors at all.

"They behaved humanely. Some hid Jews, others helped prisoners - they followed their moral conscience," he said.

It is a view backed by experts. "These men were not traitors, they were part of the German resistance movement against Hitler," said Johannes Tuchel, the Director of the German Resistance Memorial Centre in Berlin.

"This is a great day for Germany - finally the last sentences handed down by Nazi courts will be lifted," he said.

Too late for some

But the issue of pardoning WWII soldiers has proved to be highly controversial in Germany. For years, many conservative politicians resisted calls for a general rehabilitation, arguing that they did not want to encourage soldiers to betray their comrades.

Ludwig Baumann founded the Association of Victims of Nazi Military Justice in 1990. Since then, he has been campaigning for an official pardon for the last soldiers who were executed during war for betraying the Nazi regime.

"For all of us, not just for me, the vote in the Bundestag is the culmination of a long struggle," he said.

"We never believed we could achieve this because we had so many opponents. But we got there in the end and I'm very pleased," he said.

The sprightly 87-year-old regrets that many of those that would have benefited from the ruling have not lived to see it passed.

"I'm on my own now, one of the few survivors. But the fight for dignity was worth it," he says.

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