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Former SS Guard Convicted on 170,000 Counts of Accessory to Murder

Reinhold Hanning a 94-year-old retired dairy farmer served as a guard at Auschwitz during World War II

Photo taken at Auschwitz in 2013. (Garrett Ziegler/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

After an almost four month trial, 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, has been found guilty on 170,000 counts of accessory to murder by a German court.

According to Philip Oltermann at the Guardian, Hanning joined the SS forces voluntarily at the age of 18. During the trial, the now-retired dairy farmer admitted that he worked at Auschwitz during the war, but said he did not work at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where soldiers murdered the majority of the 1.1 million people killed at the concentration camp.

The wheelchair-bound Hanning was silent for most of the trial, but read from a prepared statement in April, Elke Ahlswede at Reuters reports.

“I deeply regret having been part of a criminal organization responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people and destruction of countless families,” he said. “I'm ashamed that I knowingly let injustice happen and did nothing to oppose it.”

According to the BBC, Hanning’s lawyers argued that he had not personally killed or beaten anyone at Auschwitz, though prosecutors accused him of meeting Jewish prisoners at the trains as they arrived and personally escorting them to the gas chambers.

A dozen camp survivors testified during the trial, including 71-year-old Angela Orosz Richt-Bein, who was born at Auschwitz. In February, she testified that her mother was experimented on by notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who injected sterilization chemicals into her uterus when she was pregnant. Because of this, Richt-Bein was just 2.2 pounds when she was born and too weak to even scream, reports Oltermann.

“People like you, Mr. Hanning, made the hell of Auschwitz possible,” she said during her statement in court. “People who looked on and assisted without asking questions.”

The decision was made possible by a precedent set in 2011 from the trial of John Demjanjuk, a guard at the Sobibór concentration camp, Melissa Eddy reports at the New York Times. Before that case, defendants had to be found personally responsible for the atrocities at the extermination camps to be tried. The judge in the Demjanjuk case, however, ruled that anyone serving at a concentration camp was complicit in mass murder. That allowed prosecutors to open cases against a dozen former guards, including Hanning.

The AP reports that the court in Detmold, Germany, sentenced Hanning to five years in prison, but he will remain free while his case is on appeal.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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