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Former Auschwitz guard, 94, jailed for five years

Published 17/06/2016

The gates at Auschwitz
The gates at Auschwitz

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.

Reinhold Hanning was sentenced to five years in prison by the Detmold state court , 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 when he was 18 and served in Auschwitz from January 1942 to June 1944 but said he was not involved in the killings in the camp.

"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 evidence and occasionally walking in to the courtroom on his own, though usually using a wheelchair.

Several equally elderly Auschwitz survivors gave evidence 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 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."

Mr Schwarzbaum later said he does not want Hanning to go to prison and is happy that he apologised, but had hoped that he would have provided more details about his time in Auschwitz for the sake of educating younger generations.

"The historical truth is important," Mr 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 the Second World War before being hit by grenade splinters in his head and leg during close combat in 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 front-line 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 camp operate, and thus could be tried for accessory to murder.

Though the indictment against Hanning is focused on a period between January 1943 and June 1944 for legal reasons, the court has said it would consider the full time he served there.

The same argumentation being used in Hanning's case was used successfully last year against SS sergeant Oskar Groening, to convict him of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for serving in Auschwitz. Germany's highest appeals court is expected to rule on the validity of the Groening verdict this summer.

Groening, 95, was sentenced to four years in prison but will remain free while his case goes through the lengthy appeals process and is unlikely to spend any time behind bars, given his age.

In Hanning's case, prosecutor Andreas Brendel recommended six years in prison while his defence lawyers argued for an acquittal, rejecting the new legal reasoning.

Hanning showed no reaction as the judge, Anke Grudda, read her justification for the verdict and sentence.

"You were in Auschwitz for two and a half years, performed an important function. You were part of a criminal organisation and took part in criminal activity in Auschwitz," she said.

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