Record (Kitchener-Waterloo) | Jun. 29, 2004 | Ulrich Frisse
Second Opinion

Ruling on Oberlander's citizenship promotes justice

The June 04, 2004, editorial, Justice Is Lost In A Legal Maze, interprets the Federal Court of Appeal's decision to restore Helmut Oberlander's citizenship as a failure of the justice system in its attempts "to determine not only the truth in the case of Oberlander but the most just way to settle his future." While I agree that the government, and not the courts, is to be held accountable for this "legal maze," I strongly disagree with several of the editor's conclusions.

How can the court's upholding of the most fundamental tenets of our legal system, such as due process, fairness, and freedom from malicious prosecution be a loss of justice? This decision has strongly reinforced Canada's commitment to the country's most fundamental rights for all citizens.

By putting a legal limit on the government's discretion in the matter of citizenship revocation, the court has prevented the setting of a precedent that would have threatened all naturalized Canadians. Unfortunately, it has taken nine years and Oberlander's reputation to achieve these results. It is alarming that a Canadian citizen of 44 years could be turned into a stateless person by a simple administrative decision, made behind closed doors, without the right of appeal.

The relentless effort of Kitchener-Waterloo MP Andrew Telegdi to have the current citizenship law changed in order to allow the courts to decide on citizenship revocation will hopefully make citizenship safer for all Canadians. Despite its unfortunate effect of polarizing the German and Jewish communities, this case is not about being Jewish or German, or of belonging to the perpetrators' or victims' group by association. I strongly reject the notion of collective guilt as it has repeatedly surfaced in comments from those supporting the government's stand.

Helmut Oberlander is not a war criminal and Justice Andrew McKay cleared him of all such allegations on Feb. 28, 2000. Against this background, I am particularly troubled by the editor's statement that people like Oberlander "had to make tough moral choices during the war. Some did whatever it took to survive. Others took a stand, and died for it."

The implications of this statement define resistance and self-sacrifice as the standard of accountability. During the years of the Holocaust, Canada's immigration policy left the country with the worst record among all possible refugee-receiving countries in the world. In June 1939, the Canadian government refused entry to 905 Jewish refugees on board the liner St. Louis, who had reached Canadian shores in desperate search of a safe haven from racial persecution.

The ship was returned with most of the refugees later perishing in the Holocaust. And yet, Helmut Oberlander is expected to have taken the ultimate stand and sacrificed his life?

While credible research has shown that he most likely would not have been shot had he refused to join the unit as an interpreter, that fact was not so obvious to the 17-year-old when he was forced into the Einsatzkommando at gunpoint in 1941.

Many members of the local German community are deeply concerned by Oberlander's unjust persecution. Most members of the current German group, including the Oberlanders, came to Canada as Displaced Persons during the '50s and '60s after being expelled from their homelands in Eastern Europe. The suffering of ethnic Germans during and immediately after the war has been almost entirely ignored by a biased public and academic community both in North America and Europe. I concede the role of Germans as victims of persecution does not match our comfortable black and white perception of history.

And yet, these people know what it means to have lost family members to Tito's genocide of the ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia and to have lived through Stalin's concentration camps in the Soviet Union. The 20th century has seen the most atrocious acts ever committed by human beings. However, righteous indignation does not justify the suspension of Canadian citizens' basic rights, and disrespect for our country's highest courts.

Ulrich Frisse is a German- and Canadian-trained international lawyer and historian. He teaches history at Wilfrid Laurier University and serves as historical director on the board of the German-Canadian Remembrance Society. Second Opinion articles reflect the views of Record readers on a variety of subjects.