A German court has convicted a 93-year-old former SS private of being an accessory to murder at the Nazi-run Stutthof concentration camp, where he served as a guard in the final months of World War II.
Bruno Dey was given a two-year suspended sentence. He was convicted of 5,232 counts of accessory to murder by the Hamburg state court, according to news agency DPA.
That is equal to the number of people believed to have been killed at Stutthof during his service there in 1944 and 1945. He also was convicted of one count of accessory to attempted murder.
Because he was only 17, and later 18, at the time of his alleged crimes, Dey's case was heard in a juvenile court. Prosecutors had called for a three-year sentence, while the defence demanded acquittal.
The trial opened in October, and in deference to Dey's age, court sessions were limited to two, two-hour sessions a week. Additional precautions were also taken to keep the case going through the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a closing statement to the court earlier this week, the wheelchair-bound German retiree apologised for his role in the Nazis' machinery of destruction, saying "it must never be repeated".
"Today, I want to apologise to all of the people who went through this hellish insanity," Dey said.
'Small wheel in the machinery of murder'
Just last week, another ex-guard at Stutthof was charged at age 95, and the special prosecutors' office that investigates Nazi-era crimes has more than a dozen ongoing investigations.
That's due in part to a precedent established in 2011 with the conviction of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk as an accessory to murder on allegations that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland. Demjanjuk, who steadfastly denied the allegations, died before his appeal could be heard.
Before Demjanjuk's case, German courts had required prosecutors to justify charges by presenting evidence of a former guard's participation in a specific killing, a legal standard that was often next to impossible to meet given the circumstances of the crimes committed at Nazi death camps.
However, prosecutors successfully argued during Demjanjuk's trial in Munich that guarding a camp where the only purpose was murder was enough for an accessory conviction.
Prosecutors argued that as a Stutthof guard from August 1944 to April 1945, Dey – although "no ardent worshipper of Nazi ideology'' – aided all the killings that took place there during that period as a "small wheel in the machinery of murder."
'Haunted' by horror
From mid-1944, when Dey was posted there, tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos in the Baltics and from Auschwitz filled the camp along with thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising.
More than 60,000 people were killed there by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot, or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothing until they died of exposure or were put to death in a gas chamber.
As a guard there, Dey said he frequently was directed to watch over prisoner labour crews working outside the camp.
He acknowledged hearing screams from the camp's gas chambers and watching as corpses were taken to be burned, but he said he never fired his weapon and once allowed a group to smuggle meat from a dead horse they'd discovered back into the camp.
"The images of misery and horror have haunted me my entire life," he testified.