Helmut Oberlander and justice
Canadians are understandably divided over the case of Helmut Oberlander and whether he should be deported at age 93 for what he did in the Second World War.
For the fourth time, the federal government has stripped the Waterloo man of his Canadian citizenship for serving in a Nazi death squad in the war and because a court ruled he lied about it to enter Canada. And for the fourth time, Oberlander is going to court to overturn the government’s decision, something he achieved on each of the three previous occasions. This is an extraordinary, costly and seemingly interminable legal battle. It has been waged since Jean Chrétien’s government announced in 1995 its intent to prosecute Oberlander. And because it has lasted a generation, some will in frustration question why Ottawa doesn’t give up its pursuit of Oberlander and let him remain in Canada.
But rather than being signs of failure in our legal system, the time, resources and care devoted to this case by both sides show why Canadians need and are served well by the rule of law. Through the fog of time, through the swirl of competing narratives and uncertain facts, the light shone by our courts, which have ruled both against and for Oberlander, remains our best guide. While many people see Oberlander as a powerless teenager who was forced to join a Nazi killing unit, others are adamant he enabled some of history’s worst murderers.
An ethnic German born and raised in Ukraine under harsh, Soviet rule, Oberlander became an interpreter in a mobile Nazi death squad that murdered at least 23,000 civilians, most of them Jews, between 1941 and 1943. Oberlander says he was conscripted and had no choice but to serve in the German forces that invaded his Ukrainian community. He denies participating in war crimes, and no evidence has been produced in court that he personally took part in the atrocities committed by those around him. Oberlander also denies lying about his war record when he immigrated to Canada in 1954.
Yet for many people, the fact Oberlander served with that Nazi death squad means he was a cog that helped the evil machine do its despicable job. That in itself provides a moral argument for wanting him deported, they say.
Canadians may never agree on what justice means in Oberlander’s case. They can, however, agree both sides have been able to fight freely and vigorously in court for their version of justice to prevail. That is no small matter.
Defending the rule of law is one of the reasons 1.1 million Canadians fought — and 44,000 died — in that long-ago war. And it is one of the reasons Canada is better in every way than the despotic regimes that ran roughshod over the world seven decades ago.