Ex-Auschwitz guard stays silent at start of trial

2016-02-11 20:05
Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former SS guard at Auschwitz. (AP)

Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former SS guard at Auschwitz. (AP)

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Detmold - Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old World War II SS guard, kept silent as his trial got under way in a central German town on Thursday on a change of being an accessory to at least 170 000 murders at Auschwitz concentration camp.

At the start of what is likely to be one of the last major trials relating to Nazi war crimes, Hanning allowed his lawyers to read out his personal details.

Ahead of the trial he had acknowledged being deployed to Auschwitz during the period in question, but denied involvement in any killings.

His defence team has since cast doubt on this statement, saying police had surprised him at home in 2014 to take evidence from him.

Prosecutors charge that he was a member of the SS "Totenkopf" (Death's Head) Division and that he was stationed at the Nazi regime's death camp between early 1943 and June 1944.

Leon Schwarzbaum, an Auschwitz survivor aged 94, described how guards fired through the fence at the camp and at how newly arrived prisoners begged for water while on their way to the gas chambers without understanding where they were headed.

"Half an hour later they were dead," Schwarzbaum said from the witness stand. "Mr Hanning, we are almost the same age and we will soon face the highest judge. I would like to call on you to tell the historical truth," Schwarzbaum said.

The accused kept silent.

According to the charge sheet more than three-quarters of those arriving by train went straight to their deaths in the gas chambers.

Twelve days have been set aside for the trial in Detmold, with the court sitting for just two hours a day in light of the accused's advanced age.

Medics on standby

Medical personnel are to be on hand at all times. The trial was moved from the town's court to the local chambers of industry and commerce to provide additional room.

In an indication of the international interest, places in the court were allocated to 60 journalists, 23 from the foreign media. Around 40 private plaintiffs, many of them survivors of the camp, were on hand.

The charge sheet alleges that in his capacity as guard Hanning contributed to the operation of the Auschwitz machinery at the height of the murders, primarily of Jews brought in by train from all over occupied Europe, but also of Poles, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war.

He is accused of being involved in mass shootings and in the "selection" of concentration camp inmates.

In particular, he is charged with involvement in the "Hungary Operation", in which about 300 000 Hungarian Jews were gassed on arrival at the camp between May and July 1944.

More than a million people were murdered at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, the construction of which was ordered in 1940 by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. The gassing of prisoners began in September 1941.

Following the Wannsee Conference held near Berlin in early 1942, Auschwitz became a key part of the genocidal project to murder all of Europe's Jews.

The camp was liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27 1945. There were about 7 000 survivors at the camp at the time.

Cornelius Nestler, one of the lawyers representing the private plaintiffs, said organised mass murder at Auschwitz as a whole was being put on trial for the first time.

"Guards ensured that the entire extermination factory of Auschwitz was kept secure," he said.

Last year another guard, Oscar Groening, known as the "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz" received a four-year sentence after being found guilty of being an accessory to 300 000 murders. Other similar trials are pending.

Read more on:    germany  |  nazi crimes

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