BERLIN — A German court on Tuesday threw out the case against a former SS man accused of involvement in the largest civilian massacre in Nazi-occupied France, saying there was not enough evidence to bring the 89-year-old to trial.
Cologne resident Werner C., whose last name has not been revealed in accordance with German privacy laws, was charged with murder and accessory to murder in connection with the 1944 slaughter of 642 civilians in Oradour-sur-Glane in southwestern France.
In its ruling, the Cologne state court said no witness statements disprove the suspect's contention that he was present but did not take part, nor is there any reliable documentary evidence that he was involved in the massacre.
Werner C. was part of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion of the "Der Fuehrer" regiment of the fanatical SS's "Das Reich" division. Four days after the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings in Normandy the company attacked Oradour-sur-Glane in reprisal for the French Resistance's kidnapping of a German soldier.
The troops herded the civilians into barns and into the church, blocked the doors and then set fire to the entire town. Those not killed in the blazes were shot as they tried to flee, though a handful managed to escape.
Dortmund prosecutors had alleged that the suspect shot 25 men as part of a firing squad and then helped as troops blockaded and set fire to the church.
"In a trial it could probably only be proved the suspect was in the area during the massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane as he has consistently maintained," the court said. "This mere presence is not enough to prove accessory to murder without the proof of other circumstances."
Dortmund prosecutor Andreas Brendel, who led the investigation, said he was surprised by the court's decision but that it was too early to say whether he would appeal.
"I brought charges because I believed that the evidence was sufficient," he said. "The court came to a different conclusion."
Attorney Thomas Walther said he would appeal on behalf of his client, the brother of a young female schoolteacher who was burned to death in the Oradour church, who has joined the case as a co-plaintiff as allowed under German law.
In a gesture of reconciliation last year, German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande together visited the phantom village — whose burned-out cars and abandoned buildings were left as a memorial to the massacre. Gauck said he shared the bitterness of those in France "over the fact that the murderers have not been brought to justice."
Brendel is currently investigating five other members of the unit involved in the massacre, but said given the lack of witnesses and other evidence, charges are unlikely.