Auschwitz survivors, and witnesses against former SS-member Reinhold H., gave a press conference ahead of a new trial of the former death camp guard. They insisted that this trial represents an important new legal step.
Auschwitz survivors and their lawyers held a press conference in the western German town of Detmold on Wednesday, on the eve of the next trial of a former guard at the notorious Nazi death camp. The 94-year-old, named in the German media only as Reinhold H., was ruled fit to stand trial in a new medical assessment ordered last week by the state court.
"This trial should have happened 40, 50 years ago," said 90-year-old Justin Sonder, a German who survived Auschwitz in his youth. "But now it is not too late to show what once happened."
The guard has been charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder for being stationed at the death camp from January 1943 to June 1944. He is alleged to have been a member of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf (sometimes called the "Death's Head Division" because of its skull-and-crossbone insignia), which was in charge of administering concentration camps.
Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the Berlin-based International Auschwitz Committee, said this case marked an important new development after last July's conviction in Lüneburg of Oskar Gröning, another former Auschwitz guard who was sentenced to four years in prison.
"A state prosecutor has for the first time explained in the indictment that the entire system in Auschwitz was a murder system," Heubner told DW. "That murder not only took place through gas, but through starvation, through forced labor, through living conditions. And that is new, that it has been explained so clearly."
Nor does Heubner believe that this trial will be the last of its kind. "I think the courts will continue to investigate as long as SS men are still alive - that is their legal duty," he said.
The 'Hungary Operation'
The prosecution argues that, as an Unterscharführer (junior squad leader), Reinhold H. would have been responsible for guarding transports of people entering the camp.
But a key part of the case against him is that he was at the death camp for what became known as the "Hungary Operation," the three-month period from May to July 1944 when over 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and over 300,000 were gassed on arrival.
Even by the standards of the Holocaust, it was an unprecedented acceleration in the rate of deaths. The operation was the first time the camp began working round the clock, and arguably the moment that Auschwitz acquired its iconic notoriety among all of the Third Reich's concentration camps.
Concentrating on the Hungary Operation has become a prosecution tactic in the recent round of Holocaust trials. Gröning was also convicted - on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder - exclusively for his participation in the operation, even though he spent over two years stationed at Auschwitz.
This is partly down to the fact that it is easier, both logistically and legally, for the prosecution to isolate the Hungary Operation as a single crime - distinct from the enormity of the Holocaust, but still part of it and representing both the size of the crime and its impersonal, "industrialized" nature.
Legal turning point
Reinhold H.'s attorney, Johannes Salmen, told the AP news agency that his client acknowledges serving at the Auschwitz I part of the camp complex in Nazi-occupied Poland, but denies serving at Auschwitz II, the Birkenau section, where most of the 1.1 million victims were killed.
Prosecutor Andreas Brendel countered that this would not have exempted him from duty, especially during the acceleration. "We believe that these auxiliaries were used in particular during the so-called Hungarian action in support of Birkenau," Brendel said.
The question that always plagues late Holocaust trials remains: why now, so late? How does punishing a man of over 90, whose role in the Holocaust was relatively minor, serve justice? The answer is that many believe the German justice system has failed to punish active participants in the Nazi genocide. The historian Andreas Eichmüller once counted only 49 convictions from the 6,500 SS officers who were stationed at Auschwitz and survived the war.
In part, this was largely down to the legal problem suggested above: under German law, participation in the Holocaust was not a crime, and defendants could only be convicted for a specific provable act of murder or torture. But the way the mass executions were carried out virtually absolved everyone involved of a specific prosecutable act - at least according to the interpretation of most post-war German state prosecutors. It was only with the conviction in 2011 of John Demjanjuk - a former guard at the Sobibor death camp - that this interpretation changed.
Heubner also insisted on the continued importance of Auschwitz trials - even in the face of arguments that Germany has raked over its Nazi history often enough. "The legal reappraisal of the history has not yet been finished - a social reappraisal is something very different," he said. "This is also a description of a historical situation that shows how quickly a society can slip into the loss of freedom, the loss of human rights, and that's why it's very, very topical and politically charged."