October 15, 2021 - 11:20am

A former SS guard who worked at Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin from 1942-1945 must now stand trial in Germany under tight security measures. It has taken 76 years for this case to be brought in front of a court.

When the accused appeared there last week, he cut a sorry figure as he laboriously pushed himself forward on his rollator with oner liver-spotted hand, while shielding his face from the cameras with the other. It is hard to believe that the frail, 100-year-old in the home-knitted jumper was once in the SS.

Joseph S. maintains his innocence. When he spoke — confusedly — it was easy to feel sorry for the old man. He looked frail and exhausted.

But then the prosecution made its case. The former concentration camp guard is accused of accessory to murder in 3518 cases. According to the indictment, Joseph S. “knowingly and willingly” aided the systematic killing of the inmates through barbaric means.

The court heard harrowing evidence, which included the use of mass shootings through specifically designed contraptions. The Genickschussanlage, literally ‘neck shooting facility’, allowed the killing of victims from an adjacent room through a hole in the wall disguised as a height measuring space.

Though not designed as a death camp, Sachsenhausen had need of its own crematorium as early as 1939 due to the mass deaths that occurred there through starvation, disease and murder. The Genickschussanlage was installed in 1942 and a gas chamber followed in 1943. The latter was designed to murder 60 people at a time and was regularly used for experiments with new gassing techniques, leading to even longer suffering in the victims.

In the first session of the court case, two witnesses described how their fathers were murdered in the camp because they had been active in resistance groups. One witness, Christoffel Heijer, addressed the former SS guard directly: “I might be able to understand that, perhaps out of fear, you contributed to the Nazis’ systematic murder. But were you really able to sleep at night after the war, after you had loaded so much onto your conscience?”

Holocaust survivor, Leon Schwarzbaum, also 100 years old, just like the accused, confirmed how important these last trials of Nazi perpetrators are to people like him. ‘This is the last court case for my friends, acquaintances and loved ones who were murdered. I hope that the last guilty man will be convicted.”

The process will last until January 2022. Many have questioned the cost, time and effort invested in trialling a centenarian for crimes he may have committed over three-quarters of a century ago.

But the last Nazi trials are not just important to survivors and relatives of those who died at the hands of a murderous regime. They are also a part of Germany’s coming to terms with itself. As a young democracy born out of the ashes of a genocidal regime, it needs to do what it can to confront the horrors of its past. Every individual trial is an important symbol of justice.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.