FRANKFURT — Germany has bowed to public pressure and said it would stop paying disability pensions to World War II veterans suspected of being war criminals.
The parliamentary vote amending a 1950 law that made the pensions available to veterans of Germany's wartime army came in response to months of mounting charges — much of it from Jewish groups — that Nazi war criminals were receiving benefits while some Holocaust victims were never compensated for their suffering.
The German war criminals "should never have been given the pensions in the first place," said Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress. "It's [Germany's] business to cancel them. Our business is to make sure that our own people get the pensions they deserve."
In May, the American Jewish Committee ran advertisements in U.S. newspapers featuring photographs of a Waffen SS veteran and a survivor of a Nazi ghetto in Eastern Europe with the headline: "Guess Which One Receives a War Victim's Pension from the German Government?"
While they considered it a step in the right direction, many observers questioned how many veterans would be affected by the Nov. 13 vote in the German Parliament.
The parliamentary vote was "long overdue," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European Affairs for the AJCommittee.
While applauding the action, Baker said that the "dilemma is enforcement. This will remain an issue even now that the law has changed."
The law permits each of Germany's 16 state governments, which administer the pensions, to deny payments to war criminals, Baker said, but added, "there is no obligation to investigate applicants."
"It remains to be seen how the law will be implemented," he said. "We hope that Germany will investigate some of these people seriously."
Some news reports indicated that 20 known war criminals would immediately stop receiving the benefits — but that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Last year alone, Germany paid 1.1 million veterans and dependents of Nazi Germany's armed forces disability pensions totaling nearly $8 billion, according to recently published figures.
The recipients include tens of thousands of suspected war criminals.
The pensions sparked international controversy after a German television station reported earlier this year that the German government was delivering disability payments to former Nazi criminals.
Public pressure prompted German officials to announce that they would stop payments to known Nazi criminals living abroad.
But the authorities said the 1950 Federal Benefits Law had to be amended in order to halt the pension payments to any war criminals living in Germany.
The law did not exclude any German units from the disability pensions so as to avoid labeling any soldiers as war criminals.
Some observers believe that last week's parliamentary vote was largely symbolic and was taken to deflect public criticism.
The new law does not provide any funds for extra personnel to start hunting for documentation that would prove some recipients are war criminals.
Indeed, the opposition Social Democratic Party did not want to approve the amended law because it did not want state finance officials to become involved in criminal investigations.
The Social Democrats also worried that thousands of widows would be punished for their husband's actions if their pension payments were stopped.
But the opposition legislators finally recognized that the negative publicity from the payments was so damaging that it was better to support the new law.
To satisfy some of its parliamentary critics, the new law contains a clause that allows authorities to continue pensions to those widows who claim to have no knowledge of criminal actions committed by their late husbands.
The law was proposed by the Green Party, which led the fight in recent years to suspend disability benefits to war criminals and to begin paying pensions to Holocaust victims living in Eastern Europe.
Germany has paid more than $54 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors since World War II.
However, those living in Soviet-bloc countries were unable to apply for compensation during the Cold War, and communist East Germany refused to make any payments.