Former Nazi guard (100) accused of being a ‘small cog in the machinery of death’

Hearing moved to prison sports hall in Brandenburg to accommodate defendant

Accompanied by the whirr of camera shutters and pushing a walking frame, a 100-year-old German man shuffled into a converted prison sports hall on Thursday, accused of being a "small cog in the machinery of death" as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The man, identified only as Josef S in line with German court reporting rules, is the oldest ever defendant in such a trial.

With a full head of white hair and spectacles and wearing a blue patterned sweater and grey trousers, the man, weeks shy of his 101st birthday, held a blue cardboard folder before his face until the photographers left the courtroom.

He is accused of serving as an SS guard in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin, for just over three years, where prosecutors say he “assisted in the cruel and insidious murder” of 3,518 prisoners.


Chief prosecutor Cyrill Klement told the court that by "securing, watching and allowing" atrocities to happen, Josef S had "helped others to kill".

“The defendant knowingly and willingly aided and abetted this by performing guard duty conscientiously, which was integrated seamlessly into the killing system,” said Mr Klement.

Thursday’s hearing was shifted to a prison sports hall in Brandenburg, an hour west of Berlin, to accommodate the defendant, who lives in the town, and to allow more people into proceedings.

Given the defendant’s age, doctors have ordered that the sittings be limited to three hours daily; 22 days have been scheduled until 2022.

Defendant’s life

The court heard details of the life of the defendant, who said his nickname was “Josi”.

He was born in Marijampole in southern Lithuania in 1920 but fled to Germany in 1939 with his ethnic German family after the Soviet takeover.

Two years later he joined the SS elite “death skull” division and served as a Sachsenhausen camp guard, according to records found by prosecutors in a Moscow military archive.

Thomas Walther, lawyer for one of six survivor co-plaintiffs admitted to the case, said the priority was to reach a "just verdict".

“If that is a conviction, good, but if the evidence shows that no proof is possible, then that would also be a just verdict, too,” he said.

The trial is the latest in a belated wave of prosecutions against elderly Germans, mostly lower-level officials in the Nazi era.

These trials were made possible through a legal shift, starting a decade ago, making it possible to bring charges of complicity to murder against someone in a supporting role during the Nazi era.

"Murder is the only crime with no statute of limitations, thus one takes into account that there may also be older defendants," said prosecutor Thomas Will. "Only the fitness to stand trial is of relevance."

Outside the proceedings on Thursday, former camp prisoner Leon Schwarzbaum sat in a wheelchair clutching a framed sepia photograph of his four-member family, of which he is the only survivor.

“I hope the guard finally tells the truth,” he said, “and owns up to what he did then.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin