Most 94-year-olds do not have a sharp memory, and if they do, they enjoy reminiscing about past happy days and accomplishments in life. Most 94-year-olds are physically fragile. Statistically, most people are dead long before they reach 94. Usually, those over 90 are treated as a source of wisdom, of courage — they’ve seen nearly a century of hard times, good times, change, struggle, and triumph.
It’s no different for Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Nazi SS agent. In fact, he saw too much, knew too much, and participated in too much. His voice shook while he admitted to knowing about the murders of countless Jews during World War II in the infamous “worst of the worst” death camp, Auschwitz, and doing nothing to stop them. He said he has tremendous shame.
Under Adolf Hitler’s regime, guards were frequently ordered to starve and murder Jewish people, disabled people, people of Romania, and alleged homosexuals, because they did not fit Hitler’s idea of the perfect race. It is unthinkable to most people the fact that so many men and women went along with his plan and did not revolt, including the citizens living near Concentration camps who knew the carnage that went on. But a question that many have: Once you were an SS Nazi, did you have the ability to leave and quit your post? Many survivors and guards say absolutely not — those Nazi SS guards were subjected to the same treatment as their captives.
During Hanning’s four-month-trial, which began in February in the Detmold state court, located in Northern Germany, Hanning admitted to many criminal charges such as not intervening to stop deaths, but said he never directly killed anyone. He said he has been filled with shame and regret since those years when he served in the SS, now 70 years ago. However, the court sentenced Reinhold Hanning to five years in prison, though he will remain free while appeals are heard. The prosecution originally wanted to sentence Hanning to fifteen years in prison, but the defense fought to lower his sentence. Regardless, if the verdict is upheld, the likelihood is very good that Hanning will die in prison, as he would have no chance at release until he was 100 years old, according to CBS.
Prosecutor Andreas Brendel told the Associated Press that guards in the main camp were also used as on-call guards, called specifically to duty when cattle cars of Hungarian Jews were brought to the death camp, where most were gassed to death immediately. A 94-year-old survivor of Auschwitz attended Hanning’s trial, saying he still found it difficult to look Hanning in the eye, but did, because he wanted to see what emotion was there. Leon Schwarzbaum says the images and smells of those horrific days are etched in his mind and have never been lessened.
“The chimneys were spewing fire… and the smell of burning human flesh was so unbelievable that one could hardly bear it. It’s perhaps the last time for him to tell the truth. He has to speak the truth.”
Jens Rommel, the head of the Nazi war crimes investigative office in Ludwigsburg, says time is of the essence.
“Year by year it’s more difficult, but the state justice ministers last year decided that Ludwigsburg would keep working. The state of North-Rhine Westphalia last summer talked about another 10 years as a timeframe.”
Survivor Justin Sonder says it is never too late to make people responsible for the pain they have endured.
“I’m often asked if there were SS men in Auschwitz who showed compassion. No, absolutely not!”
What are your thoughts on the guilty verdict for Reinhold Fanning?
[Photo by Bernd Thissen/Pool Photo via AP]