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Auschwitz guard sentenced to five years

Kate BradyJune 17, 2016

Reinhold Hanning has been convicted of being an accessory to the deaths of 170,000 people at the Auschwitz death camp. The plaintiffs welcomed a "big - albeit late - step" towards justice.

Reinhold Hanning
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

A court in the western German city of Detmold ruled on Friday that Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp, was guilty of being an accessory to the murder of more than 170,000 people between 1943 and 1944. Most of the victims were Jews.

"The accused is sentenced to five years' jail for accessory to murder in 170,000 cases," the court ruled, saying Hanning was "aware that in Auschwitz innocent people were murdered every day in gas chambers."

Friday's verdict was praised by survivors of the Holocaust and descendants of the victims. The plaintiffs said in a statement that the trial marked a "big - albeit late - step towards a just examination of the mass murders in Auschwitz."

For the first time, the trial focused not on direct involvement in the murders, but on the wider organization of the camp.

The World Jewish Congress also welcomed the verdict, saying Hanning had been given a "fair trial."

"Today's verdict is very clear," said Congress President Ronald S. Lauder. "He was complicit in mass murder. He was part of a merciless killing machine. Without the active participation of people like him, Auschwitz would not have been possible," Lauder said.

More than one million Jews were killed at AuschwitzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Leonhardt

'Hungary Operation'

After volunteering to join Adolf Hitler's SS at the age of 18, Hanning was stationed at Auschwitz, where he participated in the so-called "Hungary Operation" of 1944.

Over a period of three months, some 425,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz as part of the operation. The majority of them were gassed to death on arrival.

'Deep regret'

During his four-month trial, Hanning admitted to serving as an SS guard, saying he was ashamed of his actions and had never spoken to friends and relatives about his time at the death camp.

"No one in my family knew that I worked at Auschwitz. I simply couldn't talk about it. I was ashamed," Hanning told the court.

"I deeply regret having listened to a criminal organization that is responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, for the destruction of countless families and for misery, distress and suffering on the part of victims and their relatives.

"I am ashamed that I let this injustice happen and did nothing to prevent it," Hanning said.

Ahead of his sentencing, Hanning's defense argued that his mere presence at the camp did not mean he was directly responsible for the murders. Prosecutors, however, said he could be convicted for helping the camp operate.

Fewer defendants

More than 70 years since the end of the Second World War, there are unlikely to be many more convictions for the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Poor health of the elderly defendants has often lead to trials being postponed.

One case currently being heard by a German court is that of former SS medic Hubert Zafke. The 95-year-old is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in murder.