A 94-year-old former SS guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp is going on trial today on 170,000 counts of accessory to murder, the first of up to four cases being brought to court this year in an 11th-hour push by German prosecutors to punish Nazi war crimes.
Reinhold Hanning is accused of serving as an SS Unterscharfuehrer — similar to a sergeant — in Auschwitz from January 1943 to June 1944, a time when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were taken to the camp and gassed to death.
The trial of the man from a town near the western city of Detmold starts today and is one of the latest that follow a precedent set in 2011, when former Ohio car worker John Demjanjuk became the first person to be convicted in Germany solely for serving as a camp guard, with no evidence of involvement in a specific killing.
The verdict vastly widened the number of possible prosecutions, establishing that simply helping the camp to function was sufficient to make one an accessory to the murders committed there.
Before that, prosecutors needed to present evidence of a specific crime — a difficult task with few surviving witnesses and perpetrators whose names were rarely known and whose faces were often only seen briefly.
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