Ex-SS guard, 94, on trial in Germany over Auschwitz killings

Former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning (centre) waiting for the start of his trial.
Former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning (centre) waiting for the start of his trial.PHOTO: EPA

DETMOLD, Germany (AFP) - A 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard went on trial on Thursday (Feb 11) for complicity in the murders of tens of thousands of people at the Nazi concentration camp.

Reinhold Hanning was taken to court in the western town of Detmold seven decades after the defeat of the Nazis, charged with at least 170,000 counts of accessory to murder over his role at the camp in occupied Poland.

The trial is the first of three scheduled this year against former SS men, as Germany races to prosecute ageing Third Reich criminals.

Christoph Heubner, vice-president of the International Auschwitz Committee representing victims, said it was an opportunity to make up "for the failures of Germany's justice system".

Among the 6,500 former SS personnel at Auschwitz who survived the war, fewer than 50 have been convicted.

Holocaust survivor Angela Orosz, who will testify against Hanning, told AFP that all Auschwitz staff "were part of this killing machine".

"Without these people and their active support for the Holocaust, what happened in Auschwitz, the murder of 1.1 million people in just a few years, would not have been possible," said Orosz, who was born in Auschwitz just over a month before it was liberated on Jan 27, 1945.

Due to the strong interest in the trial, Thursday's hearing was held at the chamber of commerce, which can hold more people.

An hour before it was due to open, a queue of at least 50 people had formed outside, where a blue banner reading "Let's not forget" was also draped.

After the charge sheet is read out on Thursday against Hanning, the court is to hear from three German plaintiffs - Holocaust survivors Leon Schwarzbaum, Erna de Vries and Justin Sonder.

It was unclear if Hanning would speak.

Hanning faces between three and 15 years in jail, but in view of his advanced age and the period required for any appeals, he is unlikely to serve time.

"Even today, it is not too late to look at what happened", said 90-year-old Sonder, who lost 22 members of his family under the Nazi regime and was sent to Auschwitz when he was 17 years old.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, agreed.

"There are still a few old men out there with blood on their hands. For seven decades, they did not have to answer for their crimes.

"As long as it's possible to bring any of them to justice, it must be done," he said.

Hanning stands accused of having watched over the selection of which prisoners were fit for labour, and which should be sent to gas chambers.

He is also deemed to have been aware of the regular mass shooting of inmates at the camp, as well as the systematic starvation of prisoners.

"Through his capacity as a guard, he facilitated... the several thousand killings of inmates by the main perpetrator," prosecutors said.

Hanning has admitted to working in Auschwitz but denies a role in the killings.

Thursday's trial came on the heels of last year's high-profile case against Oskar Groening, dubbed the "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz".

Groening was sentenced in July to four years in prison, even though he had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.

But the legal foundation for prosecuting ex-Nazis changed in 2011 with the German conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk, solely on the basis of his having worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.

At least two other cases are due to be heard this year before German courts.

One of them concerns former SS medic Hubert Zafke, 95, who is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in killings.

Zafke was a medical orderly at the camp in a period when 14 trains carrying prisoners - including the Jewish teenage diarist Anne Frank - arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Another former guard at Auschwitz, 93-year-old Ernst Remmel, is set to stand trial in April.