Ex-SS guard accused of being accessory to 170,000 murders

Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were gassed at Auschwitz  from 1943-44. Picture: AP
Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were gassed at Auschwitz from 1943-44. Picture: AP
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A 94-year-old former SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp has gone on trial 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 in Auschwitz from January 1943 to June 1944, a time when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were brought to the camp in cattle cars and were gassed to death. The trial for the retiree 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 autoworker 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.

Hanning’s attorney, Johannes Salmen, says that his client acknowledges serving at the Auschwitz I part of the camp complex in Nazi-occupied Poland, but denies serving at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau section, where most of the 1.1 million victims were killed.

Prosecutor Andreas Brendel said that guards in the main camp were also used as on-call guards to augment those in Birkenau when trainloads of Jews were brought in.

At least three Auschwitz survivors are expected to join the trial as co-plaintiffs, as allowed under German law, and are scheduled to testify about their experiences.