Why trial of former Nazi, aged 93, barely gets a mention in Italy

Alessio Colonnelli writes about the latest former Nazi to stand trial, Bruno Dey, 93,  and how little coverage it has had in Italy.

Bruno Dey is 93 years old. He speaks softly, almost whispering. His memory is still fairly sharp, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports. You can see it from the answers he gives to the judge at the court in Hamburg. This is the last NS-Prozeß – for how many former Nazis are still to be tried a few weeks from 2020?

An SS member between the ages of 17 and 18, Dey was at that time the guardian of the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk. Often in a tower, with his rifle oiled properly, always loaded. The prisoners were gassed. He saw them going in; even into railway wagons used as lethal chambers. He must have heard people “screaming and making a din,” the judge tells him on the fourth day in the courtroom, Thursday, October 24. He maintains he did not know with certainty whether they were killed or what. Some people “mumbled,” he concedes, that several of them were murdered, but regarding the rest he was kept in the dark. Dey claims to have known the truth only later, at the end of the war.

Torretta di controllo del KZ di Stutthof

Stutthof concentration camp


The charge: between 1944 and 1945 he could have facilitated the killing of 5,230 people. The nonagenarian, in a wheelchair, joined the SS the day after the attack on Adolf Hitler. “I was adamant we would lose the war,” he recalls, “even though nobody felt safe discussing politics. You had to be on guard and keep silent.” A concept that he’s repeated several times these days.

“Yet you heard everything. What was your impression of what was going on?,” the judge says pressing him. “Hang on, can anyone hear the gas leaking?,” answers Dey with a question, perhaps a mocking one. An absurd exchange.

Nevertheless, you wonder what the meaning is of putting on trial an old man who has a couple of years left to live, who in his late adolescence was sucked into an atrocious reality by the National Socialist apparatus of which he could not understand everything at that very young age. (The film The Bridge by Bernhard Wicki, imprisoned by the Nazis when he was a young anti-regime activist, illustrates very well the tragic situation in which adolescents found themselves at the end of the Second world war, themselves victims of the cruellest state machine in the history of humanity. Shot in 1959, with a documentary slant, it is considered one of the best German films ever.)

On the other hand, the question arises as to whether this could not be an additional opportunity to be used to remind us all of the extreme seriousness of those events. Gravity that some – in ever growing numbers – seem to underestimate, judging by their support for parties, movements and organizations of neo-fascist inspiration. Yes, because an NS-Prozeß (NS stands for Nationalsozialismus) ought to be perceived in Italy – by association with the country’s own recent past and current Zeitgeist – as a powerful reminder.

Has Fascism been reckoned with from the Alps southwards? Domenico Starnone says no. In the current affairs weekly Internazionale of February 12, 2016, the Neapolitan writer makes a comparison between a hypothetical German citizen of average education and their Italian equivalent: the former, when hearing about Nazi-fascism, would use “all his verbal capabilities to express the utmost disgust at Hitler, a dangerous imbecile, what with his Mein Kampf and his inane chatter, all unnecessarily taken down in shorthand.”

“If, on the other hand,” he continues, “an educated Italian, boasting a solid democratic leaning, mentions the twenty years of Fascism and, above all, Mussolini who invented it, there he is, after a preamble of condemnation, speaking with a detached tone. It is a fact that in us [Italians] – even among the most sensitive – the sense of guilt has not taken root. We have never felt ashamed for the subordinate conforming of our fathers and grandparents; we have unflinchingly believed that under their black shirt there really was silent rejection.”

Der Vorleser

And so the pages of A voce alta – The Reader come to mind, the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink. A successful book not only in the German-speaking countries, but also in France and Britain; less so in Italy (perhaps also because of its very bad title, in the sense of having been mistranslated, which lets transpire that the story was rendered from English instead of the original in German). “A wonderful book,” Le Monde called it. Hanna Schmitz, the co-protagonist, went to prison around the mid-60s at the age of 43. Eighteen years later she was pardoned. At dawn on the day of her release, she’s found hanged – a suicide. In prison she had learned to read and write; in the cell, still neatly arranged on a shelf, books on Nazism and concentration camps (Hanna was a guardian, like Dey).

Of course, this is literary fiction, even if of the highest level and very close to reality. However, not everyone reads novels. These reach a limited part of European homes. Translating is essential, but it is not enough. It goes without saying. So, the trial in Germany of an old Nazi – a decrepit man – who seems to make fun of the court, can prove to be of enormous interest and usefulness, 74 years after the crimes committed, providing that the international press relays and comments adequately on the news.

As of today, I have failed to trace much of it in Italian newspapers; and what I’ve indeed found looks not enough to soften Starnone’s pessimism, nor mine or that of countless others.


(Originally written in Italian by Alessio Colonnelli on 27 October 2019; translated and published in English on 29, exclusively for this blog.)


Le Club est l'espace de libre expression des abonnés de Mediapart. Ses contenus n'engagent pas la rédaction.