A 94-year-old former Nazi Schutzstaffel (“SS” as its more commonly known and it means “Protection Squadron” in English) sergeant who served as a guard at Auschwitz has been sentenced to five years in prison for 170,000 counts of accessory to murder. The charges stem from allegations that he helped the Nazi death camp kill 1.1 million Jews and others.
Reinhold Hanning admitted to the Detmold state court during his trial that he volunteered for the SS at age 18 and served in Auschwitz from January 1942 to June 1944 but that he was not involved in the killings in the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Hanning told the court in April,
“It disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization. I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologize for my actions.”
Several equally elderly Auschwitz survivors testified at the trial about their own experiences, and were among about 40 survivors or their families who joined the process as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law. Leon Schwarzbaum, a 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor from Berlin who was used as slave laborer to help build a factory for Siemens outside the camp, told the court at the start of the trial that he regularly saw flames belching from the chimneys of the Auschwitz crematoria.
“So much fire came out of the chimneys, no smoke, just fire and that was burning people.”
Schwarzbaum later said he does not want Hanning to go to prison and is happy that he apologized, but had hoped that he would have provided more details about his time in Auschwitz for the sake of educating younger generations.
“The historical truth is important,” Schwarzbaum said.
Hanning joined the Hitler Youth with his class in 1935 at age 13, then volunteered at 18 for the Waffen SS in 1940 at the urging of his stepmother. He fought in several battles in World War II before being hit by grenade splinters in his head and leg during close combat in Kiev in 1941. He told the court that as he was recovering from his wounds he asked to be sent back but his commander decided he was no longer fit for front-line duty, so sent him to Auschwitz, without him knowing what it was.
Though there is no evidence Hanning was responsible for a specific crime, he’s being tried under new legal reasoning that as a guard he helped the death camp operate, and can thus be tried for accessory to murder. Though the indictment against Hanning is focused on a period between January 1943 and June 1944 for legal reasons, the court has said it would consider the full time he served there.
The same argumentation being used in Hanning’s case was used successfully last year against SS sergeant Oskar Groening, to convict him of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for serving in Auschwitz. Germany’s highest appeals court is expected to rule on the validity of the Groening verdict sometime this summer.
Despite Hanning being 94 years old, is a five year sentence considered “justice served” given his position as an SS guard? Sound off in the comments below.