In recent years as more information has come to light, multiple former Nazis have been tried in Germany for their roles in the Holocaust. Although these individuals are now elderly, Germany has faced criticism for not charging more individuals who played small roles as concentration camp guards and bookkeepers.
“The trend now is to say that it is not just about mass executions or killing in the gas chambers, but that charges can be brought against someone who accepted that people were dying through cruelty, by starvation, neglect or freezing,” Thomas Will, the prosecutor who leads the German government office tasked with investigating Nazi-era crimes, told the New York Times.
“These cases are important contextually, but also symbolically,” added Axel Drecoll, director of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation, which includes the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps. “It shows that the German justice system takes seriously and continues to pursue these crimes. It is eminently important.”
Even if the accused are not convicted or ultimately escape punishment due to their age, the trials are essential to document the history of the Holocaust.
Oskar Gröning was an SS junior squad leader stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau who was charged with collecting the personal property of arriving prisoners. In 1944 he was transferred from Auschwitz to a combat unit and was captured by British forces in June 1945. Gröning was transferred to the UK as a prisoner of war but was allowed to return to Germany following the war’s conclusion. He lived a quiet life upon his return to Germany and rarely spoke of his experiences during the war, but broke his 40-year silence after witnessing Holocaust denial creep its way into the public eye. Gröning has been interviewed by the BBC, providing first-hand accounts of the horrors of Auschwitz as one of the only Germans willing to make public statements about his time as an SS soldier. These interviews contained self-incriminating information and significantly contributed to the war crimes case against him.
In September 2014, German prosecutors charged Gröning as an accessory to murder in 300,000 cases for his role at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. On July 15, 2015, at the age of 93, Gröning was found guilty of facilitating mass murder and sentenced to four years in prison. In November 2017, a German court determined that Gröning was fit to serve his sentence in prison; he had lived at home since his conviction. Groening died at age 96 on March 12, 2018, before being incarcerated.
Hubert Zafke was a Nazi SS sergeant at Auschwitz from October 1943 until January 1944 and served as a medic at the concentration camp from August to September 1944. Anne Frank and her family arrived at the camp during his time as a medic. Zafke’s unit placed Zyklon-B pesticide crystals into the gas chambers, where up to 6,000 Jews were killed daily. Zafke was charged in a German court in January 2016 with being an accessory to the murders of 3,681 individuals at Auschwitz-Birkenau and being “supportive of the running of this extermination camp.”
Zafke admitted he served at Auschwitz but said he did not see or participate in any of the murders. His attorney said he knew people were being murdered at Auschwitz but never participated in the killings.
Following a two-year trial that only saw four days in court, the prosecutors suspended the proceeding because Zafke was too ill to face trial. Before his trial in October 2015, Zafke was diagnosed with dementia. The disease progressed to the point that the 96-year-old could no longer reasonably assess his interests or coherently follow or give testimony, and the charges were dropped on September 12, 2017.
Reinhold Hanning served as a SS guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942 to 1944, greeting prisoners as they were unloaded off freight cars and leading them to the gas chambers. After the war, Hanning lived a normal life as a truck driver and a salesman before eventually going into business for himself and retiring in 1984. Following an investigation by German federal prosecutors that began in 2013, Hanning was tried in court for 170,000 counts of being an accessory to murder. Several Holocaust survivors testified against him in court, and he admitted to knowing of the atrocities but not doing anything to stop them. Hanning was found guilty on all counts in June 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison. Hanning died the following year before serving any prison time, at age 95.
To read about John Demjanjuk, please click here.
In September 2015, an unnamed 91-year-old woman was charged with complicity in the murders of at least 260,000 individuals during her time as a telegraph operator in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The woman operated as part of an all-female SS unit.
A 96-year-old unnamed individual who was a guard at the Majdanek death camp was charged in a German court with being an accessory to murder in October 2017. The individual served as a guard at Majdanek between August 1943 and January 1944, during which an estimated 17,000 Jews were killed at the camp. Then 22 years of age, the individual on trial allegedly worked as a perimeter guard and in the camp’s guard towers.
Two Unnamed Guards
On November 15, 2017, German prosecutors announced indictments of two former Nazi SS concentration camp guards, now in their 90’s. Both men served as guards at the Stutthof concentration camp; a 93-year-old man from Borken who served in Stutthof from June 1942 to September 1944, and a 92-year-old man from Wuppertal who served there from June 1944 to May 1945. The two men were charged with accessory to murder for hundreds of killings at the camp. They deny any knowledge of the murders.
Nine New Cases in 2017
On December 18, 2017, it was announced that nine new Nazi War Crimes cases had been turned over to the state authorities for possible prosecution. These cases involve guards from the Auschwitz death camp and the Mauthausen, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück concentration camps. The suspects’ names have not yet been released, but they are all over 90 years of age.
Johann Rehbogen, a 94-year-old former SS enlisted man, went on trial in Germany on November 6, 2018. He is accused of serving as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp from June 1942 to about early September 1944. He is not linked to a specific crime, but more than 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof, and prosecutors argue that as a guard, he was an accessory to at least hundreds of those deaths. Rehbogen did not deny serving in the camp but said he was unaware of the killings and did not participate in them. Prosecutors are using the argument, first successfully applied in the trial of John Demjanjuk, that being a camp guard is sufficient to establish Rehbogen was an accessory to murder. He is being tried as a juvenile because he was under 21 at the time of the alleged crimes.
Hamburg prosecutors charged 93-year-old Bruno Dey, a former guard at Stutthof concentration camp, with aiding and abetting 5,230 cases of murder during the almost nine months he spent on duty at the camp watchtower. According to Die Welt, Dey admitted he saw people being taken to gas chambers to be murdered. Dey said after being found unfit for combat in 1944, he was assigned as an SS guard at Stutthof.
“What good would it have done for me to leave? They’d just have found somebody else,” he told prosecutors. He added, “I felt bad for the people there. I didn’t know why they were there. I knew that they were Jews who had committed no crime.” He said he joined the SS because of a heart condition that prevented him from being sent to the front.
“As an SS guard at Stutthof concentration camp between August 1944 and April 1945, he is believed to have provided support to the gruesome killing of Jewish prisoners in particular,” prosecutors said in a statement. Prosecutors accused him “of having contributed as a cog in the murder machine, in full knowledge of the circumstances, so that the order to kill could be implemented.”
Because he was a minor at the time of the crimes, he was tried in juvenile court. On July 23, 2020, Dey was convicted of 5,232 counts of accessory to murder by the Hamburg state court. That is equal to the number of people believed to have been killed at Stutthof during his time there. He also was convicted of one count of accessory to attempted murder. He was given a two-year suspended sentence.
In his final statement, Dey said, “Today, I want to apologize to all of the people who went through this hellish insanity.”
“How could you get used to the horror?” presiding judge Anne Meier-Goering asked as she announced the verdict.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, told the AP, “We’re very pleased he’s convicted but upset about the sentence, which in a certain sense is an insult to the survivors.” He added, “There has to be some element of punishment.”
In February 2021, prosecutors in Neuruppin charged 100-year-old Josef S. (his full name was withheld for privacy reasons) with assisting in the murders of 3,518 people who perished while serving as an SS guard at Sachsenhausen between January 1942 and February 1945.
“It took a long time, which has not made things any easier because now we are dealing with such elderly defendants,” Cyrill Klement, a prosecutor in Neuruppin, told the New York Times. “But murder and accessory to murder have no statute of limitation.”
“These include, among others, the execution by shooting of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942,” the court in Neuruppin said in a statement. “In addition, the charges include accessory to the murder of prisoners through the use of the lethal gas Zyklon B as well as the shootings and deaths of prisoners through maintaining life-threatening conditions in the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp.”
Axel Drecoll, director of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation, which includes the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps, told the New York Times, “Most of the perpetrators from Sachsenhausen got off scot-free.” Still, he said. “The charges are a late, but important sign that such crimes will be brought to justice.”
Josef S., the oldest person tried on Nazi-era charges, was convicted on June 28, 2022, of being an accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in prison.
“This verdict of the court has of course its symbolic significance, not only to the memory of the victims of KL Sachsenhausen and their relatives,” said Piotr M. A. Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz Memorial. “It is also a clear signal that crimes against humanity are not subjected to the statute of limitations.”
Schuetz remained free pending appeal and died on April 26, 2023, at the age of 102.
On February 5, 2021, a 95-year-old woman identified initially only as Irmgard F., who worked at the Stutthof concentration camp, was indicted for assisting “those responsible at the camp in the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war, in her function as a stenographer and secretary to the camp commandant” between June 1943 and April 1945. Because she was under 21 at the time of the offenses she is accused of, she would be tried in a juvenile court if the case goes to trial. The decision and a trial could take months or years.
The indictment came after a five-year investigation. According to prosecutors, she admitted knowing some prisoners were murdered but denied being aware that large numbers were being gassed.
The investigation is important, Peter Müller-Rakow of the public prosecutor’s office told the New York Times. “It’s about the concrete responsibility she had in the daily functioning of the camp,”
“It’s fair to say that the majority of these women knew about the persecution of the Jews and some of them knew about them being murdered,” Rachel Century, a British historian who wrote a book on female administrators in the Third Reich, told the Times. “But some secretaries had roles that gave them more access to information than others.”
The accused was a witness in the 1957 trial of the camp’s commander, Paul Werner Hoppe. Though convicted of his crimes, he was released in the 1960s and died in 1974.
In December 2022, the now 97-year-old Furchner was convicted for her role in the “cruel and malicious murder” of prisoners at Stutthof and given a two-year suspended sentence.
“I’m sorry for everything that happened and I regret that I was in Stutthof at the time. That’s all I can say,” Furchner told the court in Itzehoe.
It is likely this will be the last trial of anyone for the crimes committed by the Nazis.
Oskar Gröning, Wikipedia.
Reinhold Hanning, Wikipedia.
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