It may be the last of the Nazi trials. A spritely 94 year old has gone on trial in Germany to face 170,000 counts of accessory to murder following his World War Two work as a guard at Auschwitz death camp.
Reinhold Hanning faces the trial in Detmold and walked to court in a manner that belied his 94 years.
Auschwitz murdered hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and others. The testimony will bring to the surface the gruelling and appalling scenes that occurred at the camp.
Hanning is a retired dairy farmer who had volunteered for the Waffen SS, the military arm of the Nazi party. He exercised his right to silence and listened to the testimony of witness Leon Schwarzbaum who lost 35 members of his family.
He said he remained haunted by what he had experienced there. “One memory keeps returning – the image of an SSSturmbannführer [a Nazi paramilitary rank] driving his motorbike in front of a lorry that was completely packed with naked people, who were crying and flailing their arms.
No one could help them anymore. It was just like Dante’s Inferno,” the Guardian reported.
“Mr. Hanning, we are about the same age and we will both soon be before the highest court,” Schwarzbaum said, his voice quavering and hands trembling. “Speak here about what you and your comrades did!”
AP reported that the trial is one of four expected this year against two other former SS men and one woman alleged to have served in Auschwitz. The 11th-hour prosecutions come after a new precedent was set in 2011, when former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk became the first person to be convicted in Germany solely for serving as a death camp guard, with no evidence of involvement in a specific killing.
Prosecutors successfully argued in the Demjanjuk case that simply serving in a death camp, and thus helping it operate, was enough to convict someone of accessory to the murders committed there. Although Demjanjuk always denied serving at the death camp and died before his appeal could be heard, prosecutors last year successfully convicted SS sergeant Oskar Groening, who served in Auschwitz, on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder using the same reasoning.
Hanning admitted to investigators when first questioned that he had served in the Auschwitz I part of the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but denied serving at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau section, where most of the 1.1 million victims were killed.
As the trial opened, however, his attorneys filed a motion asking to exclude that statement, saying that Hanning had been “surprised” when authorities showed up at his house and wasn’t fully aware he was under investigation. It wasn’t clear when the judges would rule on the motion. His attorney, Andreas Scharmer, would not say whether the defense was planning to try and argue that Hanning did not serve in the camp at all if his statement was excluded.
So will the Hanning case be the last to place alleged Nazi murderers on trial?
German judicial authorities are scrambling to bring those Nazis still around to trial rather than letting them escape justice.
The fact is that barely 30 of the 6,500 SS members who are known to have served at Auschwitz have been on trial in Germany.In the former communist East Germany, 20 were prosecuted. Most escaped justice because of the belief that prevailed until recently that anyone who had served under the Nazis had been forced to do so, and was therefore not guilty.