A 94-year-old former SS sergeant was found guilty Friday of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in prison for serving as an Auschwitz guard, in a verdict that survivors from the Nazi death camp hailed as a long overdue victory.
Reinhold Hanning, sitting in a wheelchair, listened attentively but showed no reaction as Presiding Judge Anke Grudda read the ruling in state court in Detmold, Germany.
She said Hanning was a cog in a “perfectly functioning machinery” of destruction, helping operate the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where some 1.1 million people, primarily Jews, were killed.
“You were in Auschwitz for two and a half years and performed an important function,” she said. “You were part of a criminal organization and took part in criminal activity in Auschwitz,” she said.
Auschwitz survivor Hedy Bohm, who came from Toronto to testify at the trial and for the verdict, said she was “grateful and pleased by this justice finally after 70 years.”
“It is my dream to be in Germany, in a German court, with German judges acknowledging the Holocaust,” the 88-year-old said.
Bohm was one of four survivors present for the verdict, who also joined the trial as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law. Overall, about a dozen survivors testified during the four-month trial, and 58 survivors or their relatives joined as co-plaintiffs.
In her ruling, Grudda said much of their testimony put to rest any criticism that the crimes of the Nazis were too far in the past to prosecute today.
“Anyone who had the opportunity to hear the testimony of the co-plaintiffs can answer the question of importance of such a trial,” she said.
Hanning’s attorney, Andreas Scharmer, suggested an appeal was likely, and Hanning won’t have to serve any prison time until his appeals are exhausted.
He had faced a maximum of 15 years. Hanning’s defense had called for an acquittal, saying there is no evidence he killed or beat anyone, while prosecutors sought a six-year sentence.
Scharmer said he was not surprised by the verdict.
“I didn’t expect the court to have the courage for an acquittal,” he said.
In sentencing Hanning, Grudda said “there is no appropriate punishment” for his crimes, but that the court had to follow guidelines and also take into account his age, his statement of remorse, and the length of time that had elapsed since the crimes.
“We cannot, and should not punish him symbolically for all the perpetrators of the Holocaust,” she said.
Hanning had testified that he volunteered for the SS at age 18 and served in Auschwitz from January 1942 to June 1944, but said he was not involved in the killings.
“It disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization,” he told the court in April. “I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologize for my actions.”
Following the verdict, Leon Schwarzbaum, a 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor from Berlin, said he had slipped Hanning’s attorney a letter urging him to have his client detail more about what he knew about the death camp’s operations for the sake of educating younger generations.
“Mr. Hanning should have said more about what he saw in Auschwitz and what he did in Auschwitz — he did not tell what Auschwitz was,” Schwarzbaum said.
“It was a hell on earth.”
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, and so sent him to Auschwitz, without his knowing what it was.
Though there was no evidence Hanning was responsible for a specific crime, he was tried under new legal reasoning that as a guard he helped the death camp operate, and thus could be tried for accessory to murder.
The same argument was used 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.
The precedent for both the Groening and Hanning cases was set in 2011, with the conviction in Munich of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he served as a Sobibor death camp guard. Although Demjanjuk always denied serving at the death camp and died before his appeal could be heard, it opened a wave of new investigations by the special prosecutor’s office in Ludwigsburg responsible for Nazi war crime probes.
The head of the office, Jens Rommel, said two other Auschwitz cases are still pending trial — another guard and also the commandant’s radio operator — contingent on their health, and a third is still being investigated by Frankfurt prosecutors.
Rommel’s office, which has no power to bring charges itself, has also recommended charges in three Majdanek death camp cases, and has sent them on to prosecutors who are now investigating.
Meantime, the office is still poring through documents for both death camps, and is also looking into former members of the so-called Einsatzgruppen mobile death squads, and guards at several concentration camps.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he hoped the Hanning verdict would give German authorities the impetus to expedite the remaining cases.
“The Hanning verdict highlights the important role played by all those who served in the death camps,” he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. “Without them the crimes of the Nazis could never have reached the levels that they did.”