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Trial in German Courts of Auschwitz Guards


Reinhold Hanning, 94, told a court today that he was sincerely sorry for his service as a Nazi concentration camp guard at Auschwitz in January 1942 to June 1944. (New York Times article of April 29, 2016)

“I am ashamed that I witnessed injustice and allowed it to continue without taking any actions against it,” Mr. Hanning told the court in the North Rhine-Westphalia city of Detmold, WDR, a public broadcaster, reported. “I am sincerely sorry.”

Herr Hanning was a front-line German soldier who was wounded in Russia; after he was rehabilitated from his wounds he was assigned to be a guard at Auschwitz, considered a non-combat position.  He claimed that at first, he did not know what was happening, but quickly began to realize from seeing piles of bodies being removed.  “I could smell the burning bodies…” he said.

Herr Hanning is one of dozens of former concentration camp guards who are only now being charged as accessories in the murders of millions at the concentration camps.  Recent completed cases have included a four-year sentence for one soldier in his nineties and a demise before trial could be opened in another case.  Despite the seventy or so years that have passed, a number of eyewitnesses still come to these trials and beg the defendants to confess.

The unique thing about this rash of “cold cases” from the Second World War is that they are being prosecuted in German courts, by German judges, who claim original jurisdiction for these cases and opine that there is no statute of limitations on murder.  These cases began with the precedent of the trial of John Demjanjuk, a former concentration camp guard who lived in Detroit and was an autoworker for many years before being deported back to Germany, convicted in 2011, and sentenced to five years in prison.  Demjanjuk had served as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland in 1943.

A survivor who testified at the Demjanjuk trial said it did not matter how short or long the sentence was for his crimes: (according to a New York Times article of May 12, 2011)

“I had an opportunity to say what I wanted to say for 50 years,” Mr. Cortissos, 73, said outside the courtroom. “I’m satisfied.” He added, “It doesn’t mean I can forget; it doesn’t mean I can forgive.”

Parts of the twentieth century are known to historians as the “bloodiest century in human history”; this includes the fifty million killed in World War Two.  We should try to remember the lessons of history, or, as the saying goes, we will be forced to repeat them.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Richard Steagall permalink
    2016-05-02 9:55 AM

    War crimes should have no statute of limitations. Since victims are still alive prosecution of men in 90s is justified.
    however distasteful prosecution of men that age is.

    These were the most horrible crimes. Since participation in duty at camps was all volunteer low level person prosecution proper.


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