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Former Nazi concentration camp guard on trial

Tessa Clara Walther
October 17, 2019

One of the last trials against an ex-concentration camp guard began Thursday in Hamburg. The 93-year-old faces 5,230 counts of accessory to murder. Prosecutors say he was a "cog" in Nazi Germany's "murderous machinery."

A view into the gas chamber at the Stutthof concentration camp
Image: Getty Images/B. Adams

"I will never forget that I was always hungry, day and night." Dora Roth and her mother were two of roughly 120,000 people brutally interred at the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig. At least 65,000 of them died there. One of those who died was Dora Roth's mother. She starved to death because she gave her bread rations to her young daughter.

But prisoners at Stutthof did not only die of starvation. They also died of exhaustion from forced labor, from illness and exposure, were shot, or were exterminated in the camp's gas chambers. They were guarded by men in the camp's 25 watch towers. From there, sentries had a clear view of every part of the camp.

Read more: The Nazi archives, where Germany's dark past is stored on paper

Screenshot DW Video Frau Dora Roth, Stutthof survivor
Dora Roth survived the Stutthof concentration camp, but her mother was killedImage: DW

They also saw the smoke bellowing from the chimneys of Stutthof's crematorium. Was it possible that guards didn't notice that smoke? Or do they bear partial responsibility for their support of the industrial-scale killing that Nazi Germany perpetrated there?
Cog in the murderous machinery'

Bruno D., around 17 years old at the time, is said to have regularly climbed up into those towers for guard duty between the summer of 1944 and the spring of 1945. State prosecutors say that as an SS sharpshooter he not only guarded the camp, but also murdered prisoners. Now, 74 years after the camp was liberated, he stands trial in the Hamburg State Court, facing 5,230 counts of accessory to murder.

As he was a minor at the time, a juvenile jury court now will seek to determine whether he not only kept people from fleeing the camp, but was also involved in putting down revolts and thwarting the liberation of prisoners. State prosecutors are convinced he "knowingly assisted in the insidious and gruesome killing of mainly Jewish prisoners," making him a "cog in the murderous machinery" and one who also "carried out execution orders."

Read more: Retracing Germany's tragic Kindertransport, 80 years later

The decisive question will be whether or not the 93-year-old knew of the murders being carried out in the camp. Bruno D. claims he did not. Last year, he submitted to repeated questioning from state prosecutors who say he cooperated with investigative authorities. He did not deny he was a guard at Stutthof, but argues he is not guilty of the charges he faces. He says he was in no way an accomplice to murder.

Flowers resting before the crematorium at Stutthof
Many of the tens of thousands of people who died at Stutthof were crematedImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Fludra

The case is proceeding under difficult circumstances. First, the court must determine whether Bruno D. is healthy enough to stand trial. A number of experts have determined that he is only partially capable of participating. Thus, it remains an open question as to whether his health will remain stable and therefore whether a verdict can even be reached.

Read more: Why the memory of the Holocaust has become a 'monster'

More trials against concentration camp personnel

Unlike in previous decades, it's no longer necessary in Germany for prosecutors to prove someone's direct involvement in individual murders in order to obtain a conviction for Nazi crimes. Charges can now also be brought against individuals for being an accessory to murder.

The trial of Bruno D. is just one of many over the past 10 years in which guards, bureaucrats and others working with the Nazis have had to answer for their past actions. In 2011, John Demjanjuk, a former guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, was sentenced to five years in prison.

Another guard at Stutthof was charged with accessory to murder in 2018, but the proceedings were suspended after the 95-year-old defendant was deemed permanently unfit to stand trial.

Police stand behind a former concentration camp guard sitting in a wheelchair in a courtroom
Another Stutthof guard was charged in 2018, but was ultimately deemed unfit to stand trialImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Kirchner

According to Thomas Will, deputy director of the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, some 23 cases against concentration camp personnel are currently ongoing.

Read more: Holocaust literature: Beyond the labels of victim and perpetrator

For many survivors, it's not only important to bring such people to trial, but also to keep alive the memory of what happened under the Nazis. After her camp was liberated, Dora Roth, for instance, dedicated her life to explaining just what happened there. Since that time, she has spoken to countless people, especially children, about her horrific experiences at the Stutthof camp.

"What they did to us was unfathomable. And those who know what went on have an obligation to tell others. That is the only way we can prevent another Holocaust."

Editor's note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.

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