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Former SS guard convicted in Germany's 'last' Holocaust trial

dw.com logo dw.com 2020-07-23 Ben Knight
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Bruno D. had been charged with accessory to 5,230 murders in the Stutthof camp. Some of the victims were executed, others died of illness. Some 40 survivors and relatives of those who died acted as co-plaintiffs.

The nine-month trial presented something of a surreal spectacle: It was held in a young offender's court since Bruno D. was only 17 when he began his yearlong service a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp in August 1944.

Read more: Nazi camp survivor recalls Stutthof horrors

But the 76 intervening years were not legally relevant. There is no statute of limitations on murder in Germany, and being a guard at a concentration camp is sufficient for prosecution, thanks to a precedent set in the case of John Demjanjuk in 2011.

The defendant "provided the very definition of accessory to murder," said prosecutor Lars Mahnke in his closing arguments on Monday.

Guards like Bruno D. knew what was happening, they had contact with prisoners when they were on work duty outside the camp, and actively prevented their escape, the prosecutors argued.

"When you are a part of mass-murder machinery, it is not enough to look away," Mahnke said. Bruno D. himself said he was aware there were gas chambers at the camp.

The defense rested on Bruno D.'s unimportance in the concentration camp system. In his summing up on Monday, the attorney Stefan Waterkamp argued that simply being an SS guard had never been a crime in Germany before, and that standing in a guard tower had no bearing on the 5,230 deaths inside the camp. These and all the other crimes, Waterkamp said, were carried out by the so-called "camp SS," a small core of personnel who had access to the prisoners.

Read more: Anti-Semitism despite remembrance culture in Germany

Bruno D. himself also spoke during the trial. "Today I would like to apologize to those who went through this hell of madness, and their relatives – something like this can never be repeated," he said in his final statement on Monday.

Conditions in Stutthof

In January, Johan Solberg, a 97-year-old former Stutthof prisoner from Norway, testified in Hamburg that he had witnessed eleven executions personally, including the hanging of children, and watched around 100 prisoners a day, mostly Jews, being sent to the gas chambers.

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The Stutthof concentration camp was the first to be established by the Nazi regime outside Germany's borders, and one of the last to be liberated. Situated near Sztutowo, a small town about 20 miles east of Gdansk, northern Poland, it was already operational as a prison camp a day after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Over the next six years, between 63,000 and 65,000 people, including 28,000 Jews, are thought to have lost their lives in Stutthof, either from epidemics, brutal working conditions, lack of medical attention, or executions and murder. Gas chambers were used at the camp after 1944, and many more prisoners lost their lives during the death marches towards the end of the war.

Last Nazi trial?

Though other investigations are still underway, the age of other concentration camp personnel still alive means it is likely that Thursday will turn out to be the last day that a German court passes a verdict on a Holocaust perpetrator.

Read more: Confronting a disturbing truth 'My father was in the SS'

Another former Stutthof guard, 95-year-old Johann R., was deemed too ill to be tried in February 2019, three months into his trial. Similarly, the trial of former Auschwitz medic Hubert Z. was suspended in Neubrandenburg in 2017, when he was 96, after he was diagnosed with dementia.

The last two Holocaust convictions in Germany are both over three years ago: In July 2015, the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz" Oskar Gröning was sentenced to four years in prison for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder by a court in Lüneburg. In June 2016, Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard in Auschwitz, was convicted for 170,000 counts of accessory to murder by a Detmold court, though he died before his appeal could be considered.

Poland conducted its own Stutthof trials in the late 1940s, and convicted about 78 guards, some of whom were executed.

Author: Ben Knight

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