23.07.2020 dw.com
Former SS Nazi guard convicted in Germany's 'last' Holocaust trial
Ben Knight

A 93-year-old former SS Nazi concentration camp guard has been found guilty of accessory to murder and handed a suspended sentence of two years. This may be the last verdict on a Holocaust perpetrator in a German court.

Bruno D. had been charged with accessory to 5,232 murders in the Stutthof camp. Some of the victims were executed, others died of illness. Some 40 survivors and relatives of those who died acted as co-plaintiffs in the case, and many of them testified in court during the nine-month trial.

The judge acknowledged the former SS guard's willingness to take part in the trial and listen to the testimony of victims, but said he refused to recognize his own guilt right until the end. "You saw yourself as an observer," she said.

Read more: Nazi camp survivor recalls Stutthof horrors

Judge Anne Meier-Göring also flatly contradicted Bruno D.'s claim, made in his final statement, that he would not have stayed at Stutthof if he had seen a way out. "That is not true," she said. "You didn't look for a way out."

The judge similarly rejected claims that Bruno D. did not know what people in the camp were dying of, and that he was not aware of the cruelty and executions, though he did on one occasion admit he heard screams from a gas chamber. "Of course you knew what the people died of. They died of the human hell of Stutthof," she said.The nine-month trial presented something of a surreal spectacle: It was held in a young offenders' court since Bruno D. was only 17 when he began his yearlong service as guard at the Stutthof concentration camp in August 1944.

But the 76 intervening years were not legally relevant. There is no statute of limitations on murder in Germany, and being a guard at a concentration camp is sufficient for prosecution, thanks to a precedent set in the case of John Demjanjuk in 2011.

Reactions to the verdict

The verdict was not witnessed by any of the co-plaintiffs, who, according to their lawyers, largely stayed away because of the risk of travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

"They will welcome this verdict. For them it's not about revenge," said Stefan Lode, who represented former prisoners from the US and Israel. For that reason, Lode thought that his clients would be satisfied with the sentence, even if it was just a suspended one. "No one wanted to send an old man to prison," he said. "Human dignity would prevent that."

But Christoph Rückel said that his clients might not agree with that. "I expect they will be satisfied with the guilty verdict, but the fact that the sentence was suspended, not so satisfied, I think," he told DW. "Because that sends a signal of laxity that I think is not appropriate for a crime like this. The court said itself that if he'd been in court in 1982 he would have been punished more severely."

One of Rückel's clients, 92-year-old Henri Zajdenwerger, testified in February about his horrific transport from France, to Lithuania, and then to Stutthof, and the beatings and executions he witnessed there. He had been made to fell trees, and seen people dying of hunger and exhaustion around him. Asked by the judge whether he would like to say anything to Bruno D., Zajdenwerger declined.

"It was extremely important to him," Rückel remembered on Thursday. "He was very nervous the night before, didn't sleep well, but after he had made his statement, he said he had this good feeling because he'd finally been able to say something about these murderous deeds in a German court." Two of Rückel's clients died before the trial began.

The defense

The defense rested on Bruno D.'s unimportance in the concentration camp system. In his summing up on Monday, the attorney Stefan Waterkamp argued that simply being an SS guard had never been a crime in Germany before, and that standing in a guard tower had no bearing on the 5,230 deaths inside the camp. These and all the other crimes, Waterkamp said, were carried out by the so-called "camp SS," a small core of personnel who had access to the prisoners.

Bruno D. himself also spoke during the trial. "Today I would like to apologize to those who went through this hell of madness, and their relatives – something like this can never be repeated," he said in his final statement on Monday.