by Coralie FEBVRE A German court will on Friday issue a verdict in the case of a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard in what is likely to be one of the last Holocaust trials.
More than 70 years after World War II, former SS officer Reinhold Hanning stands accused of complicity in more than 100,000 murders at the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Prosecutors say he watched over the selection of prisoners deemed fit for slave labour, and those sent to the gas chambers.
Hanning is also said to have been aware of the regular mass shootings and the systematic starvation of prisoners.
For Holocaust survivors and inmates’ descendants, the trial marks “a big, even though a late, step towards a just examination of the mass murders in Auschwitz”.
This is because the trial for the first time focused on “the division of labour in the collective mass murders at Auschwitz,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.
Unlike previous trials of officers who personally sent people to the gas chambers, this case covered the broader organisation of the extermination camp, where inmates were also starved to death or killed in summary executions.
Prosecutors are seeking six years in prison on grounds that Hanning “contributed to the extermination aim of the camp”.
His lawyers want an acquittal, arguing that he had not personally “killed, hit or abused” anyone.
– ‘I am ashamed’ -In April, Hanning himself broke his silence, speaking about his time at Auschwitz during the four-month-long trial after a string of witnesses gave harrowing testimony about the living hell they faced.
Telling victims “I am sorry,” he admitted to the court that he knew prisoners were being shot and gassed and that their bodies were burned at the camp.
He said he had been “silent all my life” about the atrocities because he felt deep shame, and had never spoken a word about it to his wife, children or grandchildren.
“No one in my family knew that I worked at Auschwitz. I simply could not talk about it. I was ashamed,” said the white-haired, bespectacled widower, who ran a dairy after the war.
“I deeply regret having listened to a criminal organisation that is responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, for the destruction of countless families, for the misery, distress and suffering on the part of victims and their relatives.
“I am ashamed that I let this injustice happen and did nothing to prevent it,” he told the court.
– Killing machine -More than one million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz. Yet, of the camp’s 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.
Hanning’s trial follows a high-profile case last year against Oskar Groening, dubbed the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”.
Groening was sentenced in July to four years in prison, even though he had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.
But the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with Germany’s landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
He was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have committed, but on the basis that he served at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland — for having been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.
Another case currently being heard by a German court is that of former SS medic Hubert Zafke, 95, who is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in murder.
Hearings have however been repeatedly postponed owing to the poor health of the defendant, raising questions on whether it can go ahead.
© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson