Former Auschwitz SS medic set to stand trail | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.05.2016
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Former Auschwitz SS medic set to stand trail

They were only indirectly involved, but now they must stand trial. At the advanced age of 95, Hubert Z. is the latest German to face the courts for his role in the Nazi atrocities at the Auschwitz extermination camp.

At the end of February, everything was set for the trial of Hubert Z., charged with working as a medic at the Nazis' Auschwitz extermination camp and identified only by his first name and last initial in line with German privacy laws.

The walls had been taken down to increase the capacity of the great hall at the District Court of Neubrandenburg. Yet it still was not large enough: Additional security gates and an extra room for the press were also built. Journalists from the United States and Israel made plans to attend.

But the defendant did not appear. His poor health would not allow for it; an emergency physician said Hubert Z. suffered from high blood pressure.

The trial will get off to a new start on Tuesday. However, the question of whether Hubert Z. is healthy enough to stand trial remains. This is an issue in all of the Auschwitz trials these days. The defendants are all over 90; the atrocities they are accused of facilitating are seven decades old.

It took the German justice system a long time to get around to the suspects not directly involved in the mass murders committed at Nazi concentration camps. In Auschwitz alone, about 1 million Jews were murdered alongside more than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Sinti and Roma.

Hundreds of people died before they could face justice. The few remaining members of the "perpetrator generation" are now being put on trial. The failings of the German justice system have long been seen as a "second guilt." Of the 6,500 SS guards who served at Auschwitz, only 49 have been convicted of crimes. In comparison, Polish courts have judged some 700 cases.

'Everyone knew'

The case against Hubert Z. is unique. Years ago, he had served a four-year sentence in an East German prison for his role as a medic at Auschwitz. After he was released from prison, he became a farmer. He was 20 years old when he joined the Waffen-SS.

Because he was the last surviving male of military age in his family, he was spared having to rejoin a fighting unit after a tour of duty on the front. Instead he was sent to Auschwitz as a member of the SS medical unit. In a deposition he claimed that he had no contact whatsoever with prisoners while he was there. He said he only administered to SS members.

Nevertheless, Hubert Z. said he fully understood the fate of the camp's prisoners: "Of course - everyone knew what was going on there." And so he will stand trial for the murders that took place at the camp between August 15 and September 14, 1944. Prosecutors estimate that at least 3,681 people, who had been brought to the camp on 14 deportation trains, were killed during that time.

Hubert Z. was arrested on February 19, 2014, when investigators in 11 German states simultaneously raided and searched the apartments of 24 men and six women believed to have been former guards at Auschwitz. The Central Office of the State Justice Administration for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes had given evidence to the judiciary before the raids.

Then 93, Hubert Z. remained in custody for three weeks. State prosecutors ultimately charged him with more than 1,000 counts of accessory to murder. He was accused of aiding the operation of the killing machinery at Auschwitz. Initially the court refused to prosecute him for health reasons. The trial was only made possible after the Rostock State Prosecutor's Office lodged a complaint with the court.

The court made headlines ahead of the trial by excluding a joint plaintiff: a survivor who had testified that he and his family had been deported to Auschwitz by train - one that was not on the list of the 14 deportation trains that are the basis of the case against Hubert Z. A higher court had to intervene to allow the joint plaintiff to participate.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys also engaged in an emotional public battle ahead of the trial. Peter-Michael Diestel, the last interior minister of the GDR and one of three defense attorneys for Hubert Z., claimed that the trial would be a death sentence for his client. The Auschwitz survivors were livid. State prosecutors accused the defendant of taking medicine to raise his blood pressure so that he could be declared unfit to stand trial.