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Auschwitz guard Reinhold H. goes on trial in Germany

February 11, 2016

The court case against a 94-year-old former SS soldier has opened in the western German city of Detmold. Reinhold H. is charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder between January 1943 and June 1944.

Defendant and former SS guard Reinhold H.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

According to prosecutors, Reinhold H., who was 20 years old at the time, worked as 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.

Several survivors of Auschwitz were due to testify against Reinhold H. during the trial; so far, 12 two-hour days in court have been scheduled for the case. The short daily running time in court is down to the defendant's advanced age.

Speaking at a press conference ahead of the trial, 90-year-old Justin Sonder, a German who survived the Auschwitz camp in his youth, said the trial should have happened "40, 50 years ago."

"But now it is not too late to show what once happened," Sonder told reporters.

'Hungary Operation'

As an Unterscharführer (junior squad leader), Reinhold H. was allegedly responsible for guarding transports of people entering the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

1.1 million people were murdered at AuschwitzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Leonhardt

A key part in the case against Reinhold H. 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.

Prosecutors argue that Reinhold H. was aware that the deportees were gassed "in large numbers" at Birkenau and that a selection process as well as mass shootings took place at the main camp.

Infografik Auschwitz Englisch

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.

The latest trial against a former SS guard comes just months after Oskar Gröning was found guilty for complicity in 300,000 counts of murder. The 94-year-old, who collected luggage and valuables from Hungarian Jews, was sentenced to four years in prison.

Auschwitz-Überlebende Auschwitz survivors Erna de Vries, Justin Sonder, Leon Schwarzbaum
Auschwitz survivor Justin Sonder (center) said it is "not too late to show what happened."Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B.Thissen

Change in prosecution

Until recently, 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.

Three others defendants are also due to stand trial this year for similar charges of complicity to murder. Among them is a 91-year-old woman who worked as an SS radio operator at Auschwitz.

Around 6 million Jews and other prisoners and persecuted minorities - including Roma people, homosexuals, disabled people, Communists, and Soviet prisoners - were systematically murdered in the Holocaust during World War II.

ksb/msh (Reuters, dpa)