Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Schutzstaffel (SS) guard in the Auschwitz death camp between 1942 and 1944, apologized to Nazi victims at his trial in Detmold, a small town in West Germany. Hanning, who is accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people at the camp, stated [BBC report] that he is “ashamed” of his work in the “criminal organization.” He admitted that he knew what was going on at the camp and that he took no efforts to stop it, but he denied his participation in the murders. This was the first time Hanning had spoken openly about his role in Auschwitz. According to a 22-page declaration submitted to court, Hanning voluntarily joined the SS in 1940 when he was 18 years old at the urging of his stepmother. He was sent to Auschwitz after he was wounded and had his requests to return to the battlefield rejected. His declaration further stated: “People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned …” Auschwitz survivor and co-plaintiff, 94-year-old Leon Schwarzbaum, stated that Hanning’s apology was not enough. According to prosecutors, Hanning met Jewish prisoners as they arrived at the camp and may have escorted some of them to the gas chambers. The prosecutors argued [JURIST report] that these gas chambers could only function with guards like Hanning. A verdict is expected in May, but experts say that Hanning is unlikely to serve a prison sentence because of his age and the length of the appeals process.
German courts have recently seen an increase of war crime charges against former members of the Nazi party. Prior to 2011, German prosecutors often chose not to charge individuals they regarded as “cogs” in, rather than active members of, the Nazi war machine. In December a German court allowed [JURIST report] the trial of a 95-year-old Auschwitz paramedic accused of being an accessory to the murder of 3,681 people at Auschwitz. The 2011 conviction [JURIST report] of former Nazi guard John Demjanjuk may have emboldened German prosecutors to pursue cases against all those who materially helped Nazi Germany function. The most recent person imprisoned for their role in the Holocaust was Oskar Groening. Known as the “accountant of Auschwitz,” Groening was charged [JURIST report] in September 2014 as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people. In July Groening was given a four-year jail sentence for his role at Auschwitz, a sentence he said he would appeal [JURIST reports].