A 100-year-old man on trial for his alleged role as a Nazi SS guard at a concentration camp during World War II has told a German court he is innocent.
The defendant, Josef Schuetz, is charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. He allegedly worked at the camp between 1942 and 1945 as an enlisted member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing.
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On Friday, during the second day of his trial before the Neuruppin state court, Schuetz denied the charges levelled against him and insisted that he knew nothing about what happened at the Sachsenhausen camp.
“I am innocent,” he said.
His claims of innocence sparked an outcry from co-plaintiffs.
Pointing a finger at the accused, co-plaintiff Christoffel Heijer, 84, told the court: “To Mr Schuetz, I would like to say – I can understand that you were driven by fear of the Nazis to not leave your work, but how did you sleep peacefully for so long? Have you not thought about it? Never felt guilty?”
Tens of thousands killed
More than 200,000 people were held at Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945.
Tens of thousands of inmates died of starvation, disease, exhaustion from forced labour and other causes, as well as through medical experiments and systematic SS extermination operations including shootings, hangings and gassing.
The exact numbers of those killed vary, with upper estimates of some 100,000, though scholars suggest figures of 40,000 to 50,000 are likely more accurate.
“The defendant knowingly and willingly aided and abetted this at least by conscientiously performing guard duty, which was seamlessly integrated into the killing system,” prosecutor Cyrill Klement told the court.
Two witnesses from France and the Netherlands also spoke in the court on Friday, telling the hearing their fathers had been killed at Sachsenhausen for having been part of the resistance against the Nazis.
Authorities deemed Schuetz fit enough to stand trial despite his advanced age, though the number of hours per day the court is in session will be limited.
Further hearings are scheduled through January. Schuetz remains free during the trial.
Germany races to try Nazi perpetrators
More than 70 years after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice.
The 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Adolf Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent and paved the way to several of these twilight justice cases.
Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.
Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.
Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder, but died before they could be imprisoned.
Most recently, former SS guard Bruno Dey was found guilty at the age of 93 last year and was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Separately in the northern German town of Itzehoe, a 96-year-old former secretary in a Nazi death camp is on trial for complicity in murder.
She dramatically fled before the start of her trial, but was caught hours later. Her trial resumes on October 19.