The 100 year old Nazi standing trial in Germany
It is hard to watch, but justice is being pursued 76 years later
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.
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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.
It is always wort asking the question of what you would have done in his situation, particularly at his age and in that environment
It is worth asking, but unwise to be too sure of your answer. Only a tiny minority of Germans did any kind of active resistance – how likely is it that you or I would have been among them?
Remember Sofie and Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst; would anyone nowadays dare to die for others’ freedom?
Such people are extremely rare now, but they were extremely rare then, too.
When the alternative is at best the Russian front
I think the Nazi party’s cancel culture was a little more severe even than that of the modern age!
If not more predicable
So glad I am not one of the jurors. I would hate to have to sit in judgement on this man, but justice must be served.
On the one hand you are faced with someone who (allegedly) willingly took part in the murders of innocent people, on the other you are looking at someone who might have been acting under duress or orders, and is frail from old age, unlike his victims.
Justice has sometimes been harsh, as in the case of the young girl who, after being raped, became the long term lover of an SS officer in Auschwitz*. The young girl reluctantly agreed to become a lover, thereby protecting other young girls from being raped. By being a lover she also secured extra food and blankets for her hut. At trial, she was found guilty of collaboration and sent to prison.
*All in the book The Librarian of Auschwitz. A harrowing read, and written by a survivor.
I would encourage UnHerd readers to read at least the first chapter or two of The Kindly Ones, written in French by an American Jew. It presents a startling way of looking at collective responsibility and guilt in a way that I had never seen presented before reading. The book is challenging and a huge commitment (though worth it), but for the purposes of this post, the first 50 pages or so are worth reading and reflecting on.
A short summary follows, and please keep in mind that I am summarizing the comments of a fictional character in the book, NOT my own feeling in any way. But it seems like the right place to share….
I shot Jews in the war. I didn’t want to, but we all must do our bit. Actually, I wanted to be a concert pianist, and it was only fate that led me to this. Again, I didn’t want to be here and to do this.
Oh, you think you’re better than me? You were only a clerk. You only signed the papers sending these Jews to their death. You didn’t shoot anyone! Do you really think you’re better than me?
Or perhaps you were a truck driver. You picked up the victims knowing what would happen. Without you transporting them, the mass murder couldn’t have happened, or at least couldn’t have happened as easily because of the logistics. Still think you’re better than me?
Or perhaps you were a policemen back in Germany, prizing order above all, and simply rounding up the Jews to be sent East. This was the law, after all. Surely you bear no responsibility for their murder–you were removed by hundreds of kilometers–leaving the dirty work for me. Again, I didn’t want to do it–I wanted to be a concert pianist, but fate had other plans….
PLEASE NOT THAT THESE ARE NOT MY VIEWS, BUT ONLY MY RECOLLECTIONS FROM THIS IMPORTANT BOOK!
Oh my gosh, I read The Kindly Ones this year and I absolutely loved it. Such an important book. Thanks for posting, Jonathan Littel is a genius.
At least in my estimation, The Kindly Ones is one of the most important books of the last 50 year
Even as justice has been delayed, it is not being denied.
Victors justice. Vindictive. Only in this instance, victors, vindictive, justice by people who weren’t even alive at the time of the victory.
The article doesn’t offer an explanation as to why the 76 year wait?
I gather the law has been changed. Until recently it was required to prove active complicity in specific acts. With the new law any concentration camp guard is considered complicit in what went on there.
Because otherwise one would have need to condemn almost all the population of Germany. Deep down, his only relevant crime to this trial is that he lived too old.
War crime trials may have been all well and good for the Nazi top brass to set an example, but not for the minor operatives who carried out their orders. If that is the case then the entire German nation was complicit and should have been put on trial. I remember a few years ago a bookkeeper from Auschwitz was put on trial in his nineties, whose job was effectively to count all the gold teeth from gassed inmates.
It’s simply stupid to judge such old persons so many years after their crimes, especially when we know that after the war almost all the Nazis have been released, otherwise one would have need to condemn almost all the population of Germany. Deep down, his only relevant crime to this trial is that he lived too old.
Time capsule news item, circa year 2097:
A former computer technician and failed pandemic prediction analyst Neil Ferguson who worked at a since defunct British Empire laboratory, concentrating on ‘spreading disease’ under the guise of protecting people from nature, near London from the late 20th and early 21st century 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.
I thought we had grown out of that “eye for an eye…” – “vengeance is mine…” stuff, but anyways. fair enough.
If it were ‘an eye for an eye’ he would be executed–without benefit of a trial or lawyers for the defence.
Point taken. Sounds like the lawyers for the defence have a hard time ahead as there seems to be no limitation on vengeance.
There’s no statute of limitations on murder. If he did kill thousands, he should pay for it. It ain’t vengeance, it’s enforcing the rule of law.
Wy aren’t the neocons like Wolfowitz on trial for attacking Iraq and killing all those women and children ? We know the reason.
If he is convicted, and of sound mind, hang him.
Being under duress counts for nothing in your eyes then?
The horrors of the holocaust are well documented, even in a history littered with massacres that particular one stands out because of the sheer numbers involved and mechanical nature of the slaughter. However how many of us can say that we would have acted differently in the shoes of some of these Germans?
How many of us as a 20 year old conscript given the choice between herding the condemned into the chambers, or refusing to do so and more than likely being chucked in there with them would have chosen the second option?
Realistically I think over 99% of us would have just followed orders for self preservation
! could be wrong but wasn’t the SS an all volunteer force? Lots of Germans knew what was going on. I heard stories about men serving in Yeomanry regiments tearing their special insignia from their uniforms so they could not be mistaken for “Special” organisations before surrender or capture. If you do that with most military uniforms there remains a tell-tale blank patch so they would have been better off leaving the flashes on if they were surrendering to British forces. Yes, lots of Germans knew something “unpleasant” was going on.
Of course they knew it was going on. My point is that most had the choice of follow orders or meet the same fate as those that were murdered.
Given those two options how many of us would choose to do as we’re told to save ourselves, rather than making a principled stand and getting shot for your troubles?
Ah, the ‘we were only obeying orders’ defence. There is no record of concentration camp guards being shot, let alone gassed, for asking to be relieved of their duties. But if you know of any examples, give details. The truth is that they would, instead, be sent to the front– which would certainly have been more dangerous, but hardly constituted a punishment.
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