Germany's Nazi past still haunts the country today. A former SS guard at a concentration camp, charged with aiding and abetting hundreds of murders, is standing trial in Münster's district court.
Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, Birkenau — the names of the Nazi regime's concentration camps have etched themselves into the collective memory of both Germany and the world. These notorious places embody the inhumanity of Hitler's dictatorship.
Less well known is the Stutthof camp near current-day Gdansk, in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland. Yet from September 1939 to May 1945, the Nazis engaged in the same level of cruelty there. And, starting on Tuesday, a former SS soldier from this camp will have to answer to the regional court in the western German city of Münster about his time at Stutthof. The former guard, who hasn't been identified due to German privacy laws, is facing 100 charges of being an accessory to murder.
From 1942 to 1944, the now 94-year-old defendant was one of the guards at Stutthof. He was tracked down by looking through concentration camp documents; laundry lists and other documents were analyzed, "from which it was possible to deduce those persons who worked as guards," Daniel Stenner, the court's press spokesperson, told DW. In addition to acting as a camp guard, the defendant is also said to have led work brigades outside the camp.
Poisonous injections to the heart
According to the indictment, the guard is accused of aiding and abetting hundreds of murders. In June 1944, SS members murdered more than 100 Polish prisoners in the Stutthof gas chamber using the poison gas Zyklon B, while at least 77 wounded Soviet prisoners of war were killed a short time later using the same method.
"As part of the so-called 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question,' SS members killed an unknown number of Jewish prisoners — probably several hundred — from August to the end of 1944, both in the gas chamber and in the wagons of the narrow-gauge railroad that led into the camp," reads the indictment. In addition, it says, the camp's living conditions were so appalling that several hundred prisoners died from diseases such as typhoid fever and typhus.
The indictment is not sparing in its mention of gruesome details regarding the SS murder machine. Several hundred prisoners who were no longer able to work were systematically killed by shots to the back of the neck while being told they were receiving a medical examination. They had to stand in front of a measuring tape attached to the wall, behind which a silenced pistol was mounted in the next room.
SS doctors and paramedics also murdered prisoners in the sick bays, including many Jewish women and children, "by injecting gasoline and phenol directly into their hearts."
Support for systematic murder
The defendant has admitted to having been on duty at Stutthof, but has denied any involvement in the murders. The public prosecutor's office has accused him of deliberately facilitating the crimes through his work as a guard. According to Stenner, "it can be sufficient for a conviction if it can be established that a security guard was involved in the camp's structure and was aware of the events."
According to Jens Rommel, head of the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg, in today's trials of former Nazis it's no longer necessary to prove someone's direct involvement in individual murders. "The charges assume that they supported systematic murders in a concentration camp by being a part of the camp personnel," he told DW. This is a new approach "that aims to ensure that even this small share of responsibility borne by a particular individual is subject to punishment by law."
Hearing in juvenile chamber
The trial, scheduled to last 13 days, must be conducted before the juvenile chamber of the court in Münster because the accused was not yet 21 years old at the time of the crimes. Rommel said the next question is then whether the accused will be "treated like an adult under adult criminal law or assessed as a juvenile because at the time he was still equivalent to a juvenile in his development."
Under adult criminal law, a prison sentence is three to 15 years in prison if the accused is convicted as an accessory to murder. Sentences are generally more lenient for juveniles.
Because of the fragile state of his health, the elderly defendant is also considered to have limited ability to stand trial; an expert believes the hearing will have to be limited to two days per week, at most. As a result, it remains questionable whether the 94-year-old, if convicted, could even be imprisoned.
The situation brings to mind the case of Oskar Gröning, the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz" who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2015 for aiding and abetting the murder of more than 300,000 people. Gröning died in March before he could go to prison,having launched and lost several appeals.
Contrary to original plans, legal proceedings against a second defendant, a 93-year-old man from Wuppertal, also on charges related to Stutthof, are being dealt with separately because it is not yet possible to determine whether he is capable of standing trial.
Race against time
If the 94-year-old former prison guard ends up not having to serve a sentence, it will be a bitter pill to swallow for the 12 joint plaintiffs and victims' relatives from the US, Canada, Israel and Poland who plan to attend his trial. And bringing Nazi criminals to justice is increasingly becoming a race against time.
"The crimes were committed 70 years ago. This means it is becoming more and more difficult to find defendants who are still alive and able to stand trial," said Rommel. "Overall, it will have to be said that too few suspects have been brought to justice, that many perpetrators were punished too leniently and that many trials came too late."