Wow — we can all rest safe now. Germany has captured another Nazi war criminal. Josef Scheungraber, 90, has been sentenced to life imprisonment, after being found guilty for the execution of eleven Italian villagers in 1944 (after Italy had switched sides to the Allies). The twelve men and teenage boys were herded into a barn, which was then demolished with a bomb, as reprisal for the death of two Germans at the hands of partisans. Only one boy survived.

On the scale of the horrors taking place in WW2 mostly, but far from exclusively, by the Axis powers, it’s a small massacre, though undoubtedly right and proper to bring to justice. But that’s if justice is even possible.

Though the unit responsible for the atrocity was under Scheungraber’s command, sixty-five years on there are no witnesses to establish that he gave an order for the act, or that he was even present at the village when it took place. The prosecution’s evidence of guilt consist of a evidence that Scheungraber was at the burial of the two Germans killed by the partisans, and that he had told someone in 1970 that he “couldn’t go back to Italy because of something involving the death of eleven civilians”.

“His tone of voice suggested he was responsible,” the witness said.

Like a whisper down the decades, condemned by the memory of a tone of voice.

Yeah, uh, so not exactly beyond reasonable doubt then. If it’s even reasonably possible that the massacre was perpetrated by a junior officer while Scheungraber was elsewhere, then he’s been railroaded. God knows what he, or any other Wehrmacht officer did during the post D-Day years of the war, when the army de facto adopted a 10-to-1 policy of reprisals against civilians for resistance attacks on German troops, but it’s safe to say that thousands of officers guilty of civilian massacres died asleep in their beds. That wouldn’t matter if there was key evidence against Scheungraber — a letter or something confessing the crime — but the dodginess of the evidence surely makes Scheungraber a fall-guy for the obsessive project of the West, Germany included, that of painting World War II as a moral crusade against Nazism.

The process has become autonomous, as the window closes on the chance to prosecute actual Nazis and war criminals, and memory of the complex entanglements of the actual war between nations — with a Holocaust in the middle of it — fade to military grey. You will look in vain for any substantial reference to the Holocaust in contemporary records of the event, such as Orwell’s war correspondence, or Brecht’s diaries, and there is certainly no sense in which the destruction of the Jews, nor the bestial behaviour of the German regular army, formed a major, or even particularly important, factor in continuing the war. Indeed, by late 1944, with the vicious Battle of the Bulge, Allied troops were massacring German prisoners in shocking numbers.

Behind the prosecution of Scheungraber lies a bigger prize — that of Ivan Demjanjuk, the 90 year old American Ukrainian immigrant who may or may not be “Ivan the Terrible”, a particularly sadistic camp guard, or alternatively a lesser but vicious camp guard, or possibly just some schlub with a common Ukrainian surname. For the last quarter-century of his life Demjanjuk has been put through incessant prosecution and incarceration at the hands of several jurisdictions. If guilty, he deserves all he gets. If not, then an innocent man has been cast into the fires of hell as a burnt offering — the meaning of Holocaust in the first place.

That latter possibility should be a haunting one if you take the Holocaust seriously. Any appreciation of its real evil has to include the notion that one has to develop the moral strength to let the guilty go unpunished if the risk of tormenting the innocent is simply too great. Otherwise you haven’t understood why the Holocaust was evil rather than merely grotesque or sadistic.

But that is pretty much what has happened in the final act of World War II. In the farcical coda to it all, Quentin Tarantino has climbed aboard, with his new film Inglourious Basterds, a ridiculous fantasy about an all Jewish death squad hunting Nazis in WW2 — and inflicting the sort of torture that has become the central expressive image of American culture, the only manner by which it can imagine intimacy with another human being — and a sadism that released Holocaust victims by and large refrained from.

If the West had confidence in its own values, it would find the strength to the most damning judgement of all — indifference to the fate of the guilty, ultimate concern for that of the innocent. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, it has acted, and is acting out a pantomime of salvation, the great “never again” show which legitimises mass civilian killing, not least by our “diggers” to use the ABC’s preferred phrase. The prosecution of Scheungraber and others is the Nazi gold standard by which that process is made possible, a confession of the West’s own profound self-doubt.

Still that 90-year-old won’t be burning down any more barns. Book ’em Danno.