A German court sentences an ex-Auschwitz guard to five years in jail for ‘remaining silent and doing nothing' to stop killings at the concentration camp, even though he never killed or tortured any of the victims himself.

Former SS officer Reinhold Hanning (C) sits next to his lawyers Andreas Scharmer (L) and Johannes Salmen (R) at a court in Detmold, western Germany, on June 17, 2016.
Former SS officer Reinhold Hanning (C) sits next to his lawyers Andreas Scharmer (L) and Johannes Salmen (R) at a court in Detmold, western Germany, on June 17, 2016. (TRT World and Agencies)

A former SS guard was convicted on Friday by a German court for complicity in the mass murders at the Auschwitz death camp during World War II over 70 years ago.

In what is likely to be one of Germany's last trials for atrocities committed during that period, Reinhold Hanning, 94, was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

He was sentenced to five years in prison.

The court rejected the defence argument that the former SS officer had never killed, beaten or abused anyone himself. Judge Anke Grudda said Hanning had chosen to serve in the notorious death camp and had helped run it.

"It is not true that you had no choice; you could have asked to be transferred to the war front," Grudda told Hanning as she read out the verdict.

"This trial is the very least that society can do to give... at least a semblance of justice, even 70 years after and even with a 94-year-old defendant," Grudda said.

"The entire complex Auschwitz was like a factory designed to kill people at an industrial level... You were one of those cogs in the Nazi killing machine," she told the accused.

Hanning's lawyer, Johannes Salmen, said they would appeal.

"I assume he will not be fit for a custodial sentence. That means he will not have to go to jail," Salmen said.

During the four-month trial, prosecutors outlined how Hanning had watched over the selection of prisoners deemed fit for slave labour, and those sent to the gas chambers. Hanning is also accused of knowing about the regular mass shootings and the systematic starvation of prisoners.

For Holocaust survivors and inmates' descendants, the trial marked "a big, even though a late, step towards a just examination of the mass murders in Auschwitz".

This is because the trial was the first to focus on "the division of labour in the collective mass murders at Auschwitz," the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.

The case covered the broader organisation of the extermination camp, where inmates were also starved to death or killed in summary executions.

File photo of the Auschwitz Nazi camp in Poland
File photo of the Auschwitz Nazi camp in Poland (AFP)

World Jewish Congress lauds the verdict

The verdict was welcomed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder.

"Mr. Hanning got a fair trial, and today's verdict is very clear: He was complicit in mass murder," Lauder said. "He was part of a merciless killing machine. Without the active participation of people like him, Auschwitz would not have been possible."

Hanning speaks out

In April, Hanning broke his silence, speaking for the first time about his time at Auschwitz in court.

"I am sorry," he admitted to the court that he knew prisoners were being shot and gassed and that their bodies were burned at the camp.

"No one in my family knew that I worked at Auschwitz. I simply could not talk about it. I was ashamed," he said.

"I deeply regret having listened to a criminal organisation that is responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, for the destruction of countless families, for the misery, distress and suffering on the part of victims and their relatives.

"I am ashamed that I let this injustice happen and did nothing to prevent it," he told the court.

More convictions

Hanning's trial follows a high-profile case last year against Oskar Groening, dubbed the "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz".

Groening was sentenced in July to four years in prison, even though he had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.

Besides Hanning, one other man and one woman in their 90s are accused of being accessories to the mass murder at Auschwitz. A third man who was a member of the Nazi SS guard team at Auschwitz died at the age of 93 in April, days before his trial was due to start.

Another case currently being heard by a German court is that of former SS medic Hubert Zafke, 95. He is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in murder.

Hearings have, however, been repeatedly postponed owing to the poor health of the defendant, raising questions on whether it can go ahead.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies