A 94-year-old former SS guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp is going on trial this week on 170,000 counts of accessory to murder, the first of up to four cases being brought to court this year in an 11th-hour push by German prosecutors to punish Nazi war crimes.
Reinhold Hanning is accused of serving as an SS Unterscharfuehrer – similar to a sergeant – in Auschwitz from January 1943 to June 1944, a time when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were taken to the camp and gassed to death.
The trial of the man from a town near the western city of Detmold starts on Thursday and is one of the latest that follow a precedent set in 2011, when former Ohio car worker John Demjanjuk became the first person to be convicted in Germany solely for serving as a camp guard, with no evidence of involvement in a specific killing.
The verdict vastly widened the number of possible prosecutions, establishing that simply helping the camp to function was sufficient to make one an accessory to the murders committed there.
Before that, prosecutors needed to present evidence of a specific crime – a difficult task with few surviving witnesses and perpetrators whose names were rarely known and whose faces were often only seen briefly.
Hanning’s lawyer, Johannes Salmen, says that his client acknowledges serving at the Auschwitz I part of the camp complex in Nazi-occupied Poland, but denies serving at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau section, where most of the 1.1 million victims were killed.
Prosecutor Andreas Brendel said that guards in the main camp were also used as on-call guards to augment those in Birkenau when trainloads of Jews were taken in.
“We believe that these auxiliaries were used in particular during the so-called Hungarian action in support of Birkenau,” he said.
At least three Auschwitz survivors are expected to join the trial as co-plaintiffs, as allowed under German law, and are scheduled to testify about their experiences during the first two days of the proceedings.
Hanning’s case is one of some 30 involving former Auschwitz guards investigated by federal prosecutors from Germany’s special Nazi war crimes office in Ludwigsburg.
It was sent to state prosecutors in 2013 with the recommendation that they pursue charges after the office undertook a major review of its files following the Demjanjuk verdict.
Although Demjanjuk always denied serving at the camp and died before his appeal could be heard, prosecutors last year managed to use the same legal reasoning to successfully convict SS Unterscharfuehrer Oskar Groening, who served in Auschwitz, on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
Groening’s appeal is expected to be heard some time this year, but prosecutors are not waiting to move ahead with other cases.
Hubert Zafke, 95, a former SS Oberscharfuehrer, is scheduled to go on trial at the end of February in Neubrandenburg, north of Berlin, on 3,681 counts of accessory to murder on accusations he served as a medic at an SS hospital in Auschwitz in 1944.
Two others whose cases are likely to go to trial this year are a 93-year-old woman charged with 260,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations she served as a radio operator for Auschwitz’s commandant in 1944, and a 94-year-old man charged with 1,276 counts on allegations he served as an Auschwitz guard.