by Katja Hoyer
Friday, 15
October 2021

The 100 year old Nazi standing trial in Germany

It is hard to watch, but justice is being pursued 76 years later
by Katja Hoyer
Defendant Josef S hides his face behind a folder as he arrives for his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz / AFP) (Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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….

  • 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?

  • 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

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