A former SS sergeant admitted in court that he had served as an Auschwitz death camp guard. At the age of 94, he stood in court apologizing, in front of Holocaust survivors, for his role in the Nazi atrocities. He admitted to being cognizant that Jews were being gassed and corpses burned at the camp, but he did not take action to prevent or stop it.
This man served in Auschwitz from January 1942 to June 1944. Reinhold Hanning told the Detmold state court that he had never discussed his time in the war with his family, but wanted to use the trial as a chance to set the record straight. From his wheelchair, he spoke weakly into a microphone stating, “I want to say that it disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization. I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologize for my actions. I am very, very sorry.”
Leon Schwarzbaum, a 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor, listened to Hanning’s words from about five meters away with an emotionless stare. He said he was happy to hear Hanning apologize, but it was not enough for a man who lost 35 family members in that murderous crusade. Schwarzbaum also said, “I am not angry, I don’t want him to go to prison, but he should say more for the sake of the young generation today because the historical truth is important.”
Hanning was brought to court after being charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations that he helped the death camp function. He can legally be convicted of accessory to murder all these years later. Schwarzbaum was one of 40 Holocaust survivors who were allowed under German law to join the trial as co-plaintiffs. But he was one of only two to be present in court to listen to Hanning.
The prosecutor, Andreas Brendel, confirmed that there was already adequate evidence that confirmed Hanning’s role in the camp. But the admission in court could solidify a conviction. Brendel spoke to the Associated Press, saying, “Today’s statement contributed a little more to establish that he was there because he admitted that, and more importantly to the fact that he knew about the killings in the main camp – that also is a crucial fact.”
Hanning is facing a potential sentence of 15 years in prison if he gets convicted. Due to his age, it is highly unlikely that he will spend any time in jail once the lengthy appeals process runs its course. Statements like the one Hanning made are not uncommon, and they can decrease the length of sentences that get handed out.
Before Hanning spoke in court, his attorney took the floor. Johannes Salmen read aloud a 22-page statement from Hanning that delineated his client’s experience. He had joined Hitler Youth with fellow classmates at the age of 13 in 1935. Then in 1940 at the age of 18, he volunteered for the Waffen SS after his stepmother encouraged him to do so.
During his time serving, he fought in many World War II battles. In 1941, he was hit by grenade splinters in his head and leg during combat in Kiev. Hanning spoke warmly of the time he served on the front lines. Due to his injuries, he was no longer seen as fit for frontline duty, which was the reason he was sent to work at the camp in Auschwitz. At the time he received his new orders, Hanning claims that he had no idea about the camp.
At the time he received his new orders, Hanning claims that he had no idea about the camp. His initial responsibility included registering patrols and work details that came through the front gate. This was not near the areas where murders were being carried out.
Hanning’s court statement said, “Nobody talked to us about it in the first days there, but if someone, like me, was there for a long time then one learned what was going on. People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned.” Hanning only looked down at the table positioned in front of him as his lawyer read the words to the court.
Later on, Hanning was assigned to work at the guard tower. Guards were given orders to shoot any prisoners who tried to escape, but he did not disclose whether he ever carried those orders out. Furthermore, he did not mention if he had any specific involvement in killing people in Auschwitz, where almost 1 million Jews (and tens of thousands of others) were systemically murdered. Hanning did say that he worked his whole life to forget everything about his time there. To him, Auschwitz was a nightmare.