The Quiet Death of a Nazi

Spiegel conducts last and only interview with Nazi Officer, Martin Sandberger.

ByABC News
April 15, 2010, 7:18 AM

April 15, 2010 -- He must have been convinced that no one wanted to find him anymore. His name, Dr. Martin Sandberger, was printed for all to see on the mailbox next to the gray door of his apartment in a Stuttgart retirement home, until he died on March 30, 2010.

For years, amateur historians on the Web noted that a man named Martin Sandberg, born August 17, 1911, was the "highest ranking member of the SS known to be alive." But Sandberger's whereabouts were unknown to the public, until SPIEGEL tracked him down just before his death.

This is the chronology of a search in the winter of 2009/2010, and of an encounter with the last major war criminal to have worked in the SS's murdering machinery.

In May 1945, when the Third Reich was in ruins, Sandberger was arrested. He was a colonel and model pupil of SS leader Heinrich Himmler; a US military court subsequently convicted him of mass murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. In 1951, his sentence was reduced to life in prison, but he was released seven years later. After that, he disappeared.

There has been no word from Sandberger since then, nor do any more recent images exist of the man. The last available photo, taken in 1948, depicts him as a sullen-looking defendant during his war crimes trial in Nuremberg.

And then there it was, 60 years later -- a nameplate in a Stuttgart nursing home. Is it possible that someone like Sandberger, guilty of the mass murder of Jews, gypsies and communists, could have disappeared for half a century, undisturbed and unquestioned, in the middle of a country where there are 270 accredited journalists at the trial of John Demjanjuk, a presumed guard at the Sobibor death camp?

"What, he's still alive?" says a stunned prosecutor in Stuttgart, after typing the search term "Sandberger" into her computer and coming up with an impressive list of reference numbers for closed investigations and witness summons in murder cases. Sandberger's address was always known to the authorities. It's just that no one had looked for him in almost 40 years.

And when new evidence came available after the fall of the Iron Curtain, no one tried to reopen any case against Sandberger.

The door of the apartment on the ground floor of the retirement home opens onto an old man sitting in an armchair. He sits near the window, surrounded by bound collections of Swabian folk tales, black-and-white photos of his ancestors and an old television set.

The man who appears in old photos as a dashing SS colonel with a prominent chin and imperious gaze is now in the last few weeks of his life, a thin, fragile old man. Sandberger, who is 98 at the time of the interview, doesn't hear well, doesn't see well and complains about pain in his legs. He says: "I'm too old. I don't want to do it anymore."

It's obvious, however, that his mind is still active. Where was Sandberger during the last half century? Does he still remember the images from the war: the march to the East at the rear of the northern army group, the years he spent between the Baltics and Russia, the assault boat on Lake Peipus, the Jews kneeling in front of freshly dug pits?

Sandberger closes his eyes, threatening to fall asleep at any moment. "He was doing very well just now," says the woman who is keeping him company on this afternoon. A sudden feeling of weakness, presumably. "Just keep on asking questions," she says.

Sandberger opens his eyes again and says, in a squeaky voice and with a strong Swabian accent: "What I remember is completely irrelevant."

Historians say that Sandberger's death represents the closing of the last door into the shadowy realm of the SS state. In his standard work Die Generation des Unbedingten (An Uncompromising Generation), historian Michael Wildt describes Sandberger, a brilliant lawyer, as a poster child of the elite, academically trained type of perpetrator who, acting on orders from the Reich Security Head Office, organized systematic mass murder in the east -- as the spearheads of genocide. "They weren't the little wheels in an anonymous machinery of extermination. Instead, they were the ones who designed the concepts and built and operated the machines that made the murder of millions of people possible."

Sandberger was the last living member of the leadership of the special commandos in Himmler's murdering system. He used to appear, whether in Tallinn or Verona, as a demigod in the field-gray uniform of the SS. A total of 5,643 executions were carried out under his command on Estonian soil during the first year alone of the Nazi occupation. At the height of the power bestowed upon him by Hitler, all it took was Sandberger's signature to order the execution, behind the Eastern Front, of what he called "a subject of absolutely no value to the ethnic community."

In the Christian retirement home in Stuttgart, however, Sandberger expects compassion. He pays dearly for acts of charity: A two-and-a-half-room apartment in the home costs him a base rent of €2,519 ($3,375) a month. Nursing care costs extra. For residents who are still sufficiently lively, the facility offers a sauna, physical therapy, shopping sprees and three-course meals, including delicious food from the "Land of Swabian Pockets."

Sandberger has meals brought to his room. The physical therapist also visits, at about three in the afternoon. Otherwise he reads with a magnifying glass or, once a week, allows himself the luxury of a reader. The woman usually reads him uplifting passages from the Bible.