101-year-old former Nazi camp guard given five-year sentence

German court judge says defendant worked ‘with the smell of the crematorium in his nose’

A 101-year-old German man has been given a five-year prison sentence after he was found guilty of assisting industrialised murder as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

On Tuesday a Brandenburg court found the defendant, identified only as Josef S, guilty of assisting in the murder of 3,516 people in the Sachsenhausen camp, north of Berlin.

The prosecution produced documents showing that a man with the defendant’s name, date and place of birth served in the camp between October 1941 and February 1945.

In closing arguments on Monday, the defendant – following the proceedings with the aid of a special hearing device – protested his innocence. “I don’t know what I am supposed to have done at all,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m sitting here ... I have nothing to do with this.”

In his ruling, Judge Udo Lechtermann said it was clear the man had worked for three years “with the smell of the crematorium in his nose”.

“No one could be closer than you were,” he added. “[You] stood in the watch tower, saw how the prisoners brought other dead, starved inmates to the crematorium.”

The defence has appealed the verdict, meaning the file is not yet closed on Germany’s oldest-ever Nazi war criminal. His lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, is appealing the case on the grounds that his client could not be linked to any individual deaths in the camp.

It now falls to Germany’s federal court of justice to decide on the verdict, likely to end in a fundamental ruling on the issue of belated justice over Nazi era crimes.

For decades German prosecutors declined to open cases without concrete proof of a concrete crime – and a clear link to an alleged perpetrator. In some cases, rather than investigate, prosecutors allowed the statute of limitations expire.

A decade ago, a new generation of prosecutors brought about a change in approach by bringing a case against former SS guard John Demjanjuk. He went on trial in Munich for war crimes at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Prosecutors secured a preliminary conviction by proving his presence at the camp rather than individual action, though Demjanjuk died in 2012 before a final ruling.

Anticipating protests over his ruling, Judge Lechtermann argued that too many perpetrators of Nazi war crimes had remained unpunished in the two post-war German states. In a swipe at his own profession, he added: “Germany’s justice system addressed the case of Josef S late, far too late.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin