Chain of Responsibility

January 26, 1992

"Not everything that is legal is right." Forty-five years after the Nuremberg trials, some Germans still need to be reminded of this doctrine, which is widely accepted by the world community. The words were spoken last week by a German judge and were addressed to a former East German border guard who killed, in cold blood, a young man fleeing the oppressive regime. The fact that the guard had a legal order to kill escapers was no more of a defense than it was for the Nazis who first raised it at the war-crimes trials in Nuremberg following World War II.

Still, the jailing of one former East German border guard for the final murder of a fleeing countryman leaves many in Germany uneasy. Few, if any, Nazi murderers on this scale -- low-ranking soldiers or police who were not especially brutal -- came to trial. And the war crimes trials conducted by the World War II allies and later the Germans themselves started at the top and worked their way down in terms of ultimate responsibility. This time, the Germans have started at the bottom more out of necessity than of choice.

Erich Honecker, the fugitive East German leader, hides comfortably in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. A couple of mid-level officials are on trial, and investigations are said to be under way of many others, high and low. The case of the border guard was clear-cut and thus easy to bring to trial quickly. Even if Mr. Honecker were forced to return home, an overworked German prosecution staff would need months to make a case against the 79-year-old dictator. The unified German regime would have the embarrassment of putting on trial a former head of state that West German leaders once hosted as a peer.

For the new round of trials to appear even-handed at home and abroad, the German justice system will have to prosecute the people whose orders the 27-year-old border guard was following -- all the way up the line. Chief Judge Theodor Seidel acknowledged that Ingo Heinrich was "at the end of a long chain of responsibility." He killed a countryman when he could have avoided it (his fellow defendants did not shoot to kill). Others effectively pulled the trigger with him, and they too must pay.

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