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Germany

Auschwitz guard awaits his fate

A verdict is expected in the trial of former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning, accused of being an accessory to mass murder. He could be the last person to ever be sentenced for the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Is it possible for the now 94-year-old Hanning to have been a member of the SS in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp without sharing in the guilt for hundreds of thousands of murders?

That's the question the court in the town of Detmold has been grappling with since February, more than 70 years after the end of the Nazi dictatorship.

For decades, Germany's justice system did not bother with people like Reinhold Hanning. Of the roughly 6,000 people who served at Auschwitz and survived the war, only around 800 were ever sentenced - most of them by Polish courts.

In Germany, that number is just 43. For a long time, the attitude was that only those people who could be proved to have directly participated in the killing or abuse of those persecuted by the Nazis should be brought to justice. And there was seldom any proof.

Better late than never

Reinhold Hanning NS Detmold Auschwitz Prozess

Reinhold Hanning in court with his lawyers

It was only in 2011 that things began to change. A court in Munich sentenced former SS member John Demjanjuk to five years in prison for more than 28,000 counts of accessory to murder - without such concrete proof. For the court, it was enough that Demjanjuk had served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp. However, he never served his sentence. Demjanjuk died before his appeal could be heard.

Like Demjanjuk, Hanning also sees himself as a cog in the wheel of the Nazi machinery. In 1942, he was stationed at Auschwitz after being wounded at the front. As a member of the defense battalion, the then 20-year-old was tasked with ensuring that no prisoners fled the camp. Hanning has admitted that he was aware of the mass murders being committed at the camp, but says that he was never involved in the killings.

'Extermination via living conditions'

In the end, whether or not he was involved could be irrelevant. The court in Detmold has already said what it thinks of Auschwitz. The mass murder carried out at the camp was more than the selections that took place on the ramps, or the dropping of Zyklon B. canisters into the gas chambers. It includes the "extermination via living conditions," as the indictment reads. In other words: Thousands of prisoners were systematically murdered through the hard labor and starvation - and not just through the use of bullets or poison gas.

As a prison guard, Hanning helped keep the killing machine that was Auschwitz running.

During the trial, he apologized in a statement read out to the court: "I deeply regret having been part of a criminal organization that is responsible for the death of many people. I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it."

Whether Hanning is also guilty in the legal sense will be made known when the court hands down its verdict on Friday.

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