Did This Man Work for Hitler?

An 86-year-old Bellevue man disputes allegations that he was one of the Führer's henchmen. But he may not live to clear his name.

Accused Nazi war criminal Peter Egner says he’s still waiting to hear specifics of the atrocities he is alleged to have committed in Yugoslavia during World War II. Though Egner has been under U.S. scrutiny for five years, he thinks the government’s attempt to revoke his citizenship is based solely on sketchy information he provided during a surprise early-morning visit by Justice Department lawyers to his Bellevue home last year.

But a more pressing question is whether the white-haired 86-year-old widower will live long enough to resolve the accusations, which date to when Egner was a teenaged German security police officer in Belgrade.

“He’s quite sick,” his attorney, Robert Gibbs of Seattle, said last week. It turns out Egner was hospitalized for four days in mid-October for congestive heart disease and pneumonia, according to Gibbs. “These cases tend to run five, six, seven years,” he notes, “and I don’t know if he’s likely to live that long.”

Justice officials in D.C. aren’t saying whether or not they believe Egner is seriously ill. But either way, says Justice spokesperson Laura Sweeney, the denaturalization casewill proceed. “In most of these cases today, the person is obviously older because these are crimes from World War II,” she says. “That doesn’t at all diminish the acts that occurred.”

In U.S. District Court in Seattle, Egner is seeking dismissal of the government’s effort to send him back to what is now Serbia, possibly to stand trial. Members of a Serbian government war-crimes unit recently reviewed Nazi documents stored in Germany for evidence of Egner’s alleged participation in the Holocaust, but so far aren’t saying what they’ve learned.

Should Egner be denaturalized, Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia’s chief war-crimes prosecutor, told the Associated Press, “Absolutely, we will ask for his extradition. That goes to prove that war crimes never fall under the statute of limitations.”

Egner denies he was directly involved in what the Justice Department says was the mass murder of more than 17,000 Serbian Jews, Gypsies, and political dissidents by the Nazis’ Security Police and Security Service (SPSS) during Egner’s service from 1941 to 1943.

Elizabeth White, a deputy director and historian with the DOJ’s Office of Special Investigations, says the SPSS at times operated a mobile death unit called the Einsatzgruppe. More than 6,200 of the SPSS’s victims from Belgrade’s Semlin concentration camp died after being herded into the Einsatzgruppe‘s specially-designed vans, where they were asphyxiated with carbon monoxide from piped-in exhaust as they took a funeral ride through Belgrade’s streets, White says. They were then interred in mass Nazi burial pits at the foot of Avala Mountain, southeast of Belgrade.

White, in court documents, doesn’t specifically say what role Egner had in the Avala deaths. But during the February 2007 interview at his Bellevue residence, Egner apparently told the feds he had guarded prisoners en route to both life at Semlin and death at Avala. He was also an interpreter for political prisoners, White says, who were sometimes tortured, then executed.

Egner immigrated to the U.S. in 1960 and applied for citizenship five years later. The government now says he lied on his application by stating he served with the German Army rather than the clandestine SPSS. Egner and his wife settled near Portland,where he worked as a hotel food-service worker,then sold real estate. After his wife Gerda died in 2005, he moved to Bellevue to be near relatives.

Gibbs says the government has been investigating Egner since 2003. “We’re surprised this is all they’ve been able to come up with in all that time,” the attorney says. “I’m just scratching my head. I’m as disgusted as anyone with what the Nazis did, but I don’t see any point in chasing down Mr. Egner unless they’ve got more information.”

In a new court filing, Gibbs says, “It would have been a simple matter for the complaint to allege that Mr. Egner participated in a specific persecutory act had there been a factual basis for such an assertion.” In a response, Justice attorney Michael Barr contends the complaint is specific enough. Egner’s “assistance in persecution” was his admitted role in guarding and helping interrogate prisoners in the Nazi death-camp system.

Barr, who would not comment further, indicated there is more evidence to come. Gibbs, however, has his doubts.

“Two Justice lawyers showed up at Mr. Egner’s home at 7 a.m., and he willingly lets them in and tells them candidly what he’d done in the war and how limited his role was,” states Gibbs. “That’s their case now—no compelling details, as there usually are, about a camp guard shepherding people to the gas chamber, and so on. There’s nothing like that here, because it didn’t happen.”