Dec. 16, 2015 5:30 a.m. ET
FLORENCE, Italy Joachim Lau has spent the last 20 years trying to make his homeland pay for the sins of the past. From his spartan office in the medieval center of Florence, the German-born lawyer has brought dozens of lawsuits in Italy against the German government for World War II-era abuses. For years, most of the suits were caught in limbo because of international and domestic laws preventing them from being heard in Italian and other foreign courts. But last week, an Italian court ordered Germany to pay ‘ 100,000 ($109,170), plus interest and legal costs, to the heirs of a man who died working in a Nazi weapons factory after the Germany military deported him from Italy. It is one of the first judgments against Germany in the wake of a ruling from Italy s Constitutional Court that Mr. Lau s clients can t be denied their day in an Italian court.
The Constitutional Court s decision, issued late last year, defies a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which said Germany can t be sued in foreign courts because it is a sovereign state. The Constitutional Court ruled that governments could be sued in Italy for serious human rights abuses and struck down the Italian law that blocked Mr. Lau s lawsuits. That ruling has given Mr. Lau s legal battle newfound momentum despite continuing efforts by Rome and Berlin to stop the lawsuits. It now exposes Germany to lawsuits by thousands of victims of Nazi abuse or their heirs in Italy alone of which Mr. Lau represents a class of up to 12,000 plaintiffs, most of them forced laborers in Hitler s war machine or their heirs and potentially others outside Italy.
I threw a party after hearing the constitutional court s decision, Mr. Lau said on a recent day in his office as he puffed on a cigar. I m very lucky the Italian judges had the courage to make a clear statement in favor of fundamental rights. It is still unclear whether Mr. Lau would be able to force Germany to pay his clients. Doing so would likely require Italian courts to authorize German government property in Italy to be seized a step that could have serious diplomatic consequences. Berlin has refused to acknowledge Italy s legal jurisdiction in the case decided last week and any others brought by Mr. Lau.
Germany has already paid tens of billions of dollars in reparations since the end of World War II: to Jews and other victims of Nazi crimes, as well as nations occupied during the war. Berlin has said those payments, combined with the 1990 treaty that reunified Germany, absolves the government of any further legal duty to pay reparations. Still, the Italian court s ruling undermines one of Berlin s main legal defenses in reparations lawsuits: that as a sovereign state it can t be sued in foreign courts. By doing so, legal experts say it could offer a legal avenue to courts in other countries where the history of Nazi aggression remains fresh and political calls for further reparations persist. A Greek government study, published this spring as Athens sought to negotiate a negotiate a bailout with better terms from its German-led creditors, determined that Greece was still owed ‘ 279 billion ($315 billion). In Moscow, nationalist lawmakers set up a task force earlier this year to estimate potential Russian reparations claims.
The ruling has systemic significance, said Anne Peters, director of the Max Planck Institute for Public Law and International Comparative Law. You can be sure that other constitutional courts, such as the Russian constitutional court, will pick up on this.
Though sovereign immunity is enshrined in international law, the constitutional court asserted an exception in Italian law for serious human-rights violations. Rome and Berlin have discussed potential legal avenues for defusing the ruling, before an Italian court authorizes specific German assets to be seized, people familiar with the discussions said.
The German government is engaged in dialogue with the Italian government on how to safeguard Germany s state immunity in Italy, a German diplomat said. Italy s foreign ministry declined to comment on the ruling. Mr. Lau is also seeking to use the Italian court system to collect against Germany for crimes that occurred elsewhere. In 2012, he persuaded a court in Rome to freeze an Italian account containing ‘ 50 million owed to Germany s state-owned railway operator, Deutsche Bahn, for transactions with Italian railways, while the court hears Mr. Lau s case. Mr. Lau wants to use the ‘ 50 million to pay residents of Distomo, a Greek village where, in 1944, Waffen-SS troops killed more than 200 people in one of the worst atrocities during the Nazi occupation of Greece. In 1997, a Greek court awarded ‘ 28 million to survivors and relatives of the victims in a lawsuit brought against Germany. But the Greek government, whose consent is required under Greek law, refused to allow the ruling to be enforced. Family members of the victims later turned to the Italian courts.
Mr. Lau is now seeking to have the Distomo decision executed in Italy, aided by the constitutional court s ruling.
The Italian government thinks its courts have gone crazy, Ms. Peters said. The government can try to do what it can, but fortunately it s not very much. Italy is a state based on the separation of powers in which the courts enjoy independence. Mr. Lau was born near the German city of Stuttgart, his mother having fled there from Berlin after the war. Though he studied law in Germany, he grew disenchanted with the German legal establishment and moved to a village near Florence in the mid-1980s
His campaign began in the mid-1990s, when he was working as a lawyer in Italy collecting unpaid commercial debts. Luigi Ferrini, a neighbor who had been taken to Germany in 1944 to work in a factory, asked him to bring a lawsuit.
At the beginning, I thought it was a normal credit collection, Mr. Lau said. Seventeen years and countless legal filings later, the International Court of Justice reviewed Mr. Ferrini s case and said Mr. Lau couldn t collect from Germany: Italy had violated Germany s sovereign immunity by allowing the lawsuit to proceed. Mr. Ferrini died weeks after the 2012 Hague court ruling. Mr. Lau recalls discussing the decision with him over espressos at a cafe in Talla, the Tuscan village where they both lived, shortly before Mr. Ferrini s death. Promise me, don t give up, Mr. Ferrini said, according to Mr. Lau.
Mr. Lau s lawsuits have delved into the tangled history of Italy and Germany s wartime alliance, which collapsed in 1943 after U.S. and British forces invaded Italy. Germany then sent 750,000 Italians to work under tough conditions in factories supplying Germany and its allies. The man at the center of last week s judgment, Luigi Cafissi, was one of them. A soldier in the Italian army, the German military deported Mr. Cafissi in September 1943 to work under brutal conditions in a vast complex of Nazi weapons factories near Kahla, a town in the east of Germany. Mr. Cafissi died there in November 1944 and was buried in a mass grave along with 6,000 other forced laborers, according to the Italian court judgment.
Another forced laborer was Giovanni Gandola, an Italian soldier stationed on the Greek island of Sphacteria during Italy s occupation of Greece. After Italy surrendered to the allies, German soldiers packed him and others onto freight trains for a weekslong journey to a factory in Luckenwalde near Berlin. Mr. Gandola says the Germans gave him two choices: work in a foundry or fight on the front lines. He chose the former. But after the war, he returned home to a country that viewed him with suspicion as a potential collaborator.
There was hostility towards us from the partisans, said Mr. Gandola, 94, at his home on the shores of Lake Como. In following years, forced workers were largely forgotten, advocates for the men say.
When Germany set up a fund in 2000 to compensate slave laborers from countries occupied during the war, Mr. Gandola was one of roughly 100,000 Italians whom Mr. Lau helped submit claims. But Germany refused to pay most of them, saying that the Italian laborers were prisoners of war and thus weren t entitled to compensation.
With the Constitutional Court s ruling, Mr. Lau says the law is finally on his side after decades of wrangling. Germany has to pay. Basta. Stopp.
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