A 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served as a guard at Auschwitz has been found guilty of more than 170,000 counts of accessory to murder for helping kill 1.1m Jews and others at the Nazi death camp.
The Detmold state court sentenced Reinhold Hanning to five years in prison, though he will remain free while any appeals are heard.
During his four-month trial, Hanning admitted serving as an Auschwitz guard. He said he was ashamed that he was aware Jews were being killed but did nothing to try to stop it.
He had faced a maximum of 15 years. Hanning’s defence had called for an acquittal, saying there is no evidence he killed or beat anyone, while prosecutors sought a six-year sentence.
He said during his trial 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 in the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“It disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organisation,” he told the court in April. “I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologise for my actions.”
Despite his age, Hanning has seemed alert during the four-month trial, paying attention to testimony and occasionally walking in to the courtroom on his own, though usually using a wheelchair.
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 labourer 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,” he told the court. “And that was burning people.”
Schwarzbaum later said he does not want Hanning to go to prison and is happy he apologised, but had hoped he would have provided more details about 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 at 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 frontline duty, and so sent him to Auschwitz, without his knowing what it was.
Though there is 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.
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