Two alleged Nazi war criminals aged 95 and 100 face trial in Germany

The cases are the latest in a series that has recast ideas of responsibility in Nazi era

A view of a gas chamber at the museum of the former Nazi camp Stutthof, in Sztutowo, Poland. File photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

A view of a gas chamber at the museum of the former Nazi camp Stutthof, in Sztutowo, Poland. File photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

 

Germany’s two latest alleged Nazi war criminals facing trial have never met and, between them, are 195 years old.

On Friday a 95-year-old woman was formally charged in Germany with complicity in the murder of 10,000 people at Stutthof, a former Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland near today’s Gdansk where she allegedly worked as a secretary to an SS officer.

On Tuesday prosecutors near Berlin announced they had pressed charges against a 100-year-old man. He is accused of serving as an SS guard for three years at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of the German capital.

Prosecutors have withheld the names of the accused, in line with German practice, but both are said to be considered physically and mentally fit to stand trial. The prosecutors’ indictments, which are now being studied by German courts, are the latest attempts by Germany to bring belated justice to the lingering horrors of the Nazi era.

That these cases are being heard at all in Germany arises from a major legal change of heart a decade ago in relation to who could be convicted for Nazi-era crimes. In 2011 a Munich court found John Demjanjuk guilty of being an accessory to murder, as a camp guard, in the deaths of 28,000 people in the Sobibor camp.

File photo of convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk leaving a courtroom in Munich on May 12th, 2011. File photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters
File photo of convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk leaving a courtroom in Munich on May 12th, 2011. File photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters

Demjanjuk, a former car factory worker who spent most of his adult life in the US, died before an appeal could be heard into his conviction. A second conviction followed in 2015 against Oskar Gröning, who served as a guard in Auschwitz.

Prosecutor Cyrill Klement, who is responsible for the new case against the 100-year-old, said his case followed the Demjanjuk and Gröning legal reasoning: “Being part of the functioning of this machinery of death is sufficient for a conviction of accessory to murder.”

Move welcomed

While some have questioned the wisdom of putting older people on trial, particularly those with low levels of responsibility in the Nazi regime, the push has been welcomed by Holocaust survivor groups and by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which investigates Nazi-era crimes.

“The advanced age of the defendants is no excuse to ignore them and allow them to live in the peace and tranquility they denied their victims,” said Dr Efraim Zuroff, the centre’s chief Nazi-hunter. “These are the last people on Earth who deserve any sympathy, since they had none for those tortured and murdered, some of whom were even older than they are today.”

The series of Nazi trials in the last decade has not just recast ideas about the responsibility of ordinary Germans in the Hitler regime. It also casts an unflattering light on Germany’s legal and political establishment, and their dwindling interest in prosecuting senior Nazi war criminals in the post-war decades.

Stutthof was the first camp established by the Nazis outside of Germany, in September 1939, and it claimed up to 65,000 lives before becoming the last camp to be liberated in May 1945.

Sachsenhausen, a commuter train ride north of Berlin, was established in 1936, one of the first such Nazi camps, and about 30,000 people were killed or died there in the subsequent nine years amid disease, malnutrition and exhaustion.