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Last Auschwitz trial close to collapse

May 15, 2017

One of Germany's last ever trials of a former SS medic could soon be suspended altogether after suspect Hubert Zafke was found to have dementia. Prosecutors say the court has deliberately delayed proceedings.

Deutschland Hubert Z. ehemaliger SS-Sanitäter in Auschwitz im Gerichtssaal in Neubrandenburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck

The German judiciary's efforts to make up for past failures in prosecuting Nazis directly involved in the Holocaust have been set back after 96-year-old Hubert Zafke, a former SS medic at the Auschwitz concentration camp, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia.

Zafke was charged with 3,681 counts of accessory to murder for his work at the camp in August and September 1944, but according to the court, a new medical assessment found that he was no longer in a state to "reasonably understand his interests inside and outside the main trial," because of an "advanced moderate dementia syndrome," according to a court statement sent to DW.

Equally, Zafke was not able to "carry out his defense in a comprehensible way, nor to give or receive trial statements," according to the state court in Neubrandenburg, eastern Germany.

Auschwitz Prozess
Few of those who worked at Auschwitz have ever been brought to trial in GermanyImage: Internationales Auschwitz Komitee

No voice for Holocaust victims

But in a move that has proved typical of the court's handling of the trial, the medical assessment has not yet been delivered to lawyers representing the Holocaust survivors acting as co-plaintiffs.

Thomas Walther, the attorney representing Walter and William Plywaski, two brothers whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz in the period Zafke was working there, said this was not the first time he was finding out about new developments in the trial from the press.

But he told Der Spiegel magazine that he was not really surprised by the medical report. "I didn't have much hope," he said. "It was clear to me that it would be close." He added that if the assessment was "scientifically well-founded," he would not challenge it.

Thomas Walther
Attorney Walther says the court sabotaged the trialImage: privat

It is now up to the court to decide whether to continue the trial, which has been delayed for several months, in part because of decisions by the judge Klaus Kabisch. In April, Walther filed complaints accusing Kabisch of sabotaging the trial.

At one point, Kabisch refused to allow the Plywaski brothers to be represented, and, according to Walther, persistently rejected requests that are normally routine - such as allowing the lawyer funds to visit his clients in their homes in the United States. On three occasions, a higher regional court ordered Kabisch to accept the Plywaskis as co-plaintiffs.

Playing for time

Roman Guski, of the political education organization Context, which co-founded a website specifically to follow the trial, said the court had been "playing for time" in the hope that "the course of events would take the whole thing out of its hands."

"The court has been trying to stay the trial from the start," he told DW. While other recent Auschwitz trials - of former SS members Oskar Gröning in Lüneburg and Reinhold Hanning in Detmold - had taken an "honorable form," he argued, "this wasn't the case at all in Neubrandenburg."

"We always assumed this trial would go ahead, but it just never happened," he said. "The trial could have long been finished."

Guski also said that his organization had been motivated to campaign about the trial in part because of the local media reports on the case, which "had been useful to the accused," and failed to give a voice to Holocaust survivors acting as co-plaintiffs.

But Zafke's attorney, Peter-Michael Diestel, vehemently rejected the prosecution argument, saying he had fully expected his client to be deemed unfit to stand trial. "My client was unfit to stand trial from the beginning," he said. "The court was dealing with several thousand counts of the murder of Jews - on the last trial day, my client was convinced that he was being charged for animal abuse. I had to call for a break to explain to him that this was about the murder of Jewish people, and not about abusing chickens and ducks."

"The defense presented three different medical assessments from renowned experts, all confirming he was unfit," said Diestel. "One single doctor, who the state prosecutor dragged along, said he had limited capability."

Diestel called it a "terrible judicial scandal" that his client had been dragged through this ordeal. "It's a judicial scandal whose purpose is to correct the ugly legacy of the German judiciary in the 1960s and 1970s, when they had almost all the people responsible for Auschwitz and didn't prosecute them. Now they want to correct that with innocent people, and my client is innocent - if the trial is suspended, as it almost certainly will be."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight