In a German court right now, a 94-year-old man named Reinhold Hanning will listen to the testimony of survivors from the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz, where the former guard allegedly helped kill 170,000 people.
Hanning’s trial for his involvement in the genocide started Thursday. In his youth, he was an SS sergeant and helped to guard the camp. In this role, state prosecutors claim he watched trainloads of people arrive at Auschwitz and helped administer the efficient system that killed them, Deutsche Welle reported.
The former guard has admitted to his service from 1943 to 1944 but denied harming anyone. He said he served in a part of the complex that didn’t see any gassings and didn’t even know the gas chambers existed, the New York Times reported.
Prosecutors find that hard to believe.
“This trial should have happened 40, 50 years ago,” said 90-year-old Justin Sonder, a German survivor. “But now it is not too late to show what once happened.”
At the center of the Auschwitz guard’s trial is a horrifying period called the “Hungary Operation.” In three months, from May to July 1944, deaths accelerated to the point that Hungarian Jews were killed around the clock. This was a first for the camp and an effort that earned the site its morbid notoriety.
Of the 430,000 people brought to Auschwitz in those three months, 300,000 were gassed immediately upon arrival. Another former guard, Oskar Gröning, was convicted for all those deaths as a result of his role in the “Hungary Operation.”
This period in the Holocaust is critical as state prosecutors try to put former guards on trial, because it focuses on the enormity of the genocide into one single crime. And chances are, prosecutors argue, this former guard knew what was happening in those three months in 1944.
Reinhold’s attorney, Johannes Salmen, claims that his client did, in fact, serve at the Auschwitz I part of the complex. There was another section, called Auschwitz II-Birkenau, in which 1.1 million people were killed, but Hanning didn’t serve there.
For prosecutors, this argument doesn’t hold water. During the “Hungary Operation,” everyone was called to action to help filter hundreds of thousands of people from the train and to the gas chambers, the Associated Press reported. Prosecutor Andreas Brendel said guards at the main camp (part I) augmented those in the Birkenau section, and Reinhold was most likely among them and “aware of the killings with which we have charged him.”
The evidence against the guard is augmented by thorough records kept by the Nazis, which document the large-scale operation in detail.
The trial will include the testimony of several survivors, many of them in their 90s, in 12 sessions limited to two hours today in recognition of the guard’s poor health. Among those testifying at the trial is 94-year-old survivor Leon Schwarzbaum, who was at the camp in 1943. He believes prosecuting the SS sergeant is justice.
“I think the people responsible for helping make the whole apparatus function, even if they were a tiny gear in the machine, should be convicted.”
Germany has pushed for former now-elderly guards to be brought to trial, because in the years after the Holocaust, the justice system failed to adequately punish participants. Among 6,500 SS officers, only 49 have been convicted.
This is because of how the camps functioned. Participation in the Holocaust wasn’t a crime, because such a mass execution couldn’t be boiled down to one crime and, therefore, absolved everyone. The 2011 conviction of Sobibor camp guard John Demjanjuk changed that, and Reinhold’s trial is an important development.
“The entire system in Auschwitz was a murder system,” said Christoph Heubner, the executive vice president of the Berlin-based International Auschwitz Committee.
And everyone played a part in making that system work.
“That murder not only took place through gas, but through starvation, through forced labor, through living conditions. And that is new, that it has been explained so clearly.”
[Photo By Bernd Thissen/AP]