BERLIN — A historically loaded conflict with potentially serious consequences about compensation for Nazi crimes looms between Germany and Italy. The Italian Supreme Court in Rome has ruled that Nazi victims can sue Germany for compensation in Italian civil courts.
The court ruled last week that international law's principle of "state immunity," which would normally preclude such suits, does not apply where the "wrongful acts of a state, acts that can be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity, are concerned." The reasoning behind the decision was that in such extreme cases the inviolable human rights guaranteed by the Italian constitution take precedence.
The highest Italian court thus stands in direct opposition to a decision by the highest court of the community of states. In 2012, the International Court of Justice in The Hague decided in favor of Germany against Italy. The Hague judges took the view that even in the event of the worst crimes against humanity, state immunity must still apply.
Italian courts must therefore reject civil suits by Italian Nazi victims as inadmissible. Italy deferred to the judgment and in 2013 passed a law that incorporated the Hague judgment into national legislation. This law has now been annulled by the Supreme Court in Rome.
This could mean a plethora of civil suits against Germany in Italy. Those who could sue include Italians who were taken to Nazi concentration camps to provide forced labor. Relatives of victims of Nazi massacres could also ask for compensation from the German government.
Were Germany to ignore Italian verdicts the plaintiffs could try to claim German assets in Italy, such as the grounds of cultural institutes, seized and publically auctioned by court order. There have been attempts such as these in the past.
Berlin has long feared that the Italian example could be followed by other countries victimized by Nazi Germany such as Ukraine, Russia and Greece. That was one of the reasons the German government turned to the International Court of Justice. In the tribunal in The Hague it argued that state immunity was a cornerstone of international order and served the peaceful coexistence of states with one another, particularly after wars where there had been injustice on a massive scale.
Sources at the foreign ministry in Berlin said the verdict of the Supreme Court in Rome was being analyzed. The German legal opinion, that had been confirmed by the International Court of Justice, would in any case not change.
The federal government plans to examine how it could assert its legal opinion. About the Supreme Court verdict, Rome-based military lawyer Marco De Paolis, who has been involved in many lawsuits against the Nazis, said that "this is an extremely important decision that I believe the international community cannot ignore."
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