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A former guard from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is charged with complicity in more than 3,500 instances of murder.
In just a couple of years, there may be no one left to go on trial for their role in the Nazi killing machine. Either those suspected of involvement in the heinous crimes will no longer be alive or they will be unfit to face trial.
Prosecutors in Germany are currently probing charges against 17 people for their possible roles in Nazi crimes. Not a single one is under the age of 95. And, this week, a regional court in the northern German town of Neuruppin is the backdrop for the beginning of the trial against a 100-year-old former concentration camp guard.
Prosecutors accuse the man of "knowing and willful" complicity in the murder of 3,518 inmates at the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin between 1942 and 1945.
In concrete terms, the man is accused of aiding and abetting in the shooting and killing of Soviet prisoners of war, as well as the murder of inmates using poison gas. Prosecutors explain that prisoners were also driven to their deaths through "the enforcement and maintenance of inhuman conditions."
A sign with the cynical message 'Work makes free' also stood at the entrance to the Sachsenhausen camp
The Sachsenhausen camp was located in a district of the small town of Oranienburg that lies just a short distance north of Berlin. It had a special significance during the Nazi period because, since its completion in 1936, it served as a model for other concentration camps. It also became a training camp for the Schutzstaffel (SS), a notorious paramilitary unit.
In all, more than 200,000 people were interned there. Tens of thousands were shot, gassed, or perished during horrific pseudo-scientific experiments, or quite simply as a result of the appalling conditions that prevailed in the camp. As late as the end of April 1945, when Red Army forces had already gathered just outside Oranienburg, the SS forced more than 30,000 prisoners to join so-called death marches that left thousands more dead.
Senior public prosecutor Thomas Will told DW why the trial against the former guard is only now finally taking place: "The defendant was not known to us before we undertook research at the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow. And he turned up among the so-called 'Beuteakten' — files that were looted by the Red Army during World War II. First, we determined his place of residence. And then, in March 2019, after preliminary inquiries concerning his personal details and the length of time that he served at the Sachsenhausen camp, we handed the matter over to the public prosecutors."
Thomas Will is the head of the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes that is based in the southwestern city of Ludwigsburg. Since the agency was set up in 1958, it has been collecting information that can be used by public prosecutors to open initial proceedings against men and women suspected of Nazi-related crimes.
Should men and women who are a hundred years old face trial for crimes committed eight decades ago — especially if they were only a tiny cog in the massive Nazi killing machine? Thomas Will has no doubt and his answer is yes: "When they met in Stuttgart in June 2015, the justice ministers representing Germany's 16 federal states agreed that the Central Office should continue to operate in its present form as long as work remains to be done."
As long as, that is, investigations to identify possible perpetrators remain open, he added.
"Furthermore, with the mass crimes committed by the Nazis in mind, a statute of limitations on murder was abolished. The question of whether these crimes should still be prosecuted today had been made redundant with the lifting of the statute of limitations on murder. The aim of criminal proceedings is always to establish individual guilt," said Will.
Until around a decade ago, proof of direct personal involvement in killings was necessary for the investigation to begin. And former concentration camp guards did appear in the Nazi trials of the 1960s and 1970s. However, only as witnesses. That changed fundamentally in 2011 with the ruling against former concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk. Since then, says Thomas Will, "having generally served at a camp where it is clear and apparent that systematic killing took place does in itself amount to punishable complicity, providing sufficient relevant evidence is presented at the trial.
On this basis, no documentation is required to verify specific times and numbers of victims to concretely prove individual complicit."
In 2011, Demjanjuk was pronounced guilty by a court in Munich of being an accessory to the murder of over 28,000 people. The 91-year-old was sentenced to five years in prison. The ruling specifically referred to the fact that, by serving at the camp, Demjanjuk had also become part of the Nazi killing machine. In the meantime, several other men have been found guilty of taking part "knowingly and willfully" in the systematic murder of prisoners or causing their deaths by allowing them to starve to death.
Most recently, in July 2020, a district court in Hamburg was set to open a 93-year-old former guard at the Stutthof death camp east of the city of Gdańsk for complicity in murder on 5,232 counts. He was handed a suspended sentence of two years.
Whether any of the few remaining cases will actually go to court depends mainly on whether or not the elderly defendants are fit to stand trial. A medical assessment suggests that the man whose trial begins on Thursday can take part in the hearings for up to two or two-and-a-half hours each day.
The trial is set to last 22 days as a whole. A special relaxation room has been set aside for the defendant.
This article has been translated from German.