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Seven decades later, guilt does not expire

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Fabian von der Mark
June 18, 2016

The 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning has been sentenced to five years in prison. The former SS member was found guilty of the murder of 170,000 people. It is the right sentence, says Fabian von der Mark.

Deutschland Detmold Prozess gegen Reinhold Hanning früherer Auschwitz-Wachmann
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/B. Thissen

Reinhold Hanning participated in the largest crime ever perpetrated by Germany. He was a knowing accomplice. He was part of the industrial extermination of human beings, and at the same time he is a reminder of the fact that it was not a machine, but rather people who were at work during the days of National Socialism.

When Hanning says that he is ashamed, it is a human emotion. But the confession cannot excuse his guilt. He is legally responsible for the murder of 170,000 people.

Orders do not protect against guilt

He does not bear that guilt alone, but he cannot be exempted from it, either. With his work as a concentration camp guard, the former SS member Hanning contributed to the fact that Auschwitz would become a place of unforgettable horror. He too, was responsible for the murder of 1.3 million human beings, including over one million Jews.

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Fabian von der Mark reports from DW's Berlin studio.

The sentencing of Hanning, like that of Gröning and Demjanjuk before him, shows that Germany has learned a decisive lesson from the Nazi era: no one can hide behind politicians, parties or orders. The Shoah was an inhuman joint effort perpetrated by those who killed and those who let that killing happen. During the trial, Hanning explained: "I could smell the incinerators. I knew that bodies were being burnt."

SS members escaped responsibility for years

Germans avoided dealing with Nazi-era crimes for a very long time – in legal terms, as well. When Hessian Attorney General Fritz Bauer attempted to determine the complicity of accessories to Auschwitz with a class action lawsuit fifty years ago, he was refuted by the German courts.

For decades, SS members remained free because they could not be found directly guilty of murder. Defense lawyers in the Hanning case used this line of reasoning as well, and called for an acquittal. Such a verdict would have been wrong, and it would have been unbearable for the victims.

One thing is clear: the sentencing of a 94-year-old is not about protecting society against a criminal. It is about the admission of guilt, and justice for victims. The Hanning trial was one of the last public opportunities to do so. But even after the last perpetrator has died, the memory of this crime will remain as a warning for future generations.