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Mountain man . . . Former Nazi soldier Willi Huber, the "founding father" of Mt Hutt skifield, pictured with 1992 Winter Olympic Games slalom silver medallist Annelise Coberger on Mt Hutt in 2017. PHOTO: ALLIED PRESS FILES

by Chris Tobin

One of the world’s last surviving members of notorious Nazi army unit the Waffen-SS has died in Geraldine.

Willi Huber (97) died in the town on August 9.

Mr Huber, who has been called the “founding father” of the Mt Hutt skifield, featured in a Sunday programme on TVNZ in 2017 which was criticised for playing down Mr Huber’s time as a Nazi soldier.

Holocaust Centre of New Zealand board chairman Jeremy Smith said at the time positive and uncritical representations of former SS men who served the Nazi regime were outrageous.

“At best, such representations imply a tremendous ignorance and at worst, attempt to promote an intentionally distorted version of history for political or ideological reasons.”

Shalom.Kiwi, a pro-Israel website commented: “Any piece that involves interviewing a former Nazi should be handled sensitively and with the utmost care.

“To glorify a Nazi Waffen-SS soldier is to trivialise the horrors of WW2, is an insult to the Kiwi soldiers who fought for freedom and desecrates the memory of the millions murdered.”

In the programme, Mr Huber said times were extremely hard in Austria when he was growing up there and Hitler “offered a way out”.

On being advised of Mr Huber’s death, the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand chief reporter Chris Harris said their thoughts were with Mr Huber’s family.

“It is tragic to lose a family member,” Mr Harris said.

“I don’t what to speculate on what his full part was [in the war], what he did or didn’t do.

“Our thoughts are with his family.”

After Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Mr Huber’s father joined the Nazi Party and Mr Huber and his brothers became members of Hitler Youth.

He said, when interviewed, Hitler was “very clever”.

At 17, Mr Huber volunteered for the Waffen-SS, in which he served as both a machine-gunner and then as a gunner in Panzer tanks, including in the Russian invasion.

The Waffen-SS was established by Heinrich Himmler, the main architect of the Holocaust, in late 1939.

Mr Huber’s unit took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, history’s largest military operation which claimed the lives of millions of people.

His unit came within 30km of Moscow before retreating. He took part in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, which was considered a turning point in the war and ended Hitler’s dream of conquering Russia.

Mr Huber received an Iron Cross first-class for his service in the Battle of Kursk by which time he had the officer’s rank of Hauptsturmfuhrer, equivalent to a captain.

Earlier, he had received an Iron Cross second-class.

When interviewed by TVNZ, he declared during the war he had no knowledge of war crimes committed by the Waffen-SS or German forces, nor of the Holocaust, the Nazis’ mass murder of about six million European Jews and millions of others, many of whom died in concentration camps run by the SS.

“We, as soldiers never, never had the slightest inkling – maybe the high command,” he said.

“It never occurred to us what happened in Germany or Poland.”

Late in the war, Mr Huber survived being bayonetted by a Soviet soldier.

Because of his service in the Waffen-SS, he was arrested and served 16 months in a military prison during which time he was interviewed three times regarding his actions during the war.

By then, because of its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes, the Waffen-SS had been declared a criminal organisation.

Mr Huber, a former mountain guide in his native country, came to New Zealand in the 1950s and married.

He worked in mountain sports retail in Christchurch and climbed Mt Cook many times.

For his work at Mt Hutt, a skifield hut loft was named after him as well as a ski run.

Mr Huber’s death notice said he was the dearly loved husband of Edna for 65 years, proud father of four children and their partners and grandfather to 10.

“At Willi’s request, a private family service has been held,” the notice said.