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'Justice has no expiry date': Former Nazi death camp guard, 100, goes on trial

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By Josephine Joly with AFP
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Defendant Josef S hides his face behind a folder as he waits for the start of his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021.
Defendant Josef S hides his face behind a folder as he waits for the start of his trial in Brandenburg an der Havel, northeastern Germany, on October 7, 2021.   -   Copyright  TOBIAS SCHWARZ / AFP
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A 100-year-old former concentration camp guard today becomes the oldest person yet to be tried for Nazi-era crimes in Germany, 76 years after the end of the Second World War.

The suspect, identified only as 'Josef S' because of German privacy laws, is accused of complicity in the shooting of prisoners of war and stands accused of "knowingly and willingly" assisting in the murder of 3,518 prisoners between 1942 and 1945 at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

The accused, who has lived in the Brandenburg area for years, has refused to speak publicly about the trial.

Lawyer Thomas Walther, who represents survivors of the horrors and their relatives, has dedicated his retirement years to bring the last surviving Nazis on trial, no matter their age.

"Justice has 'no expiry date'", stressed the lawyer. "No one voices any doubts when charges are filed over a murder after 30 years. But the prosecution of old men and old women is somehow viewed as problematic after 75 years, even if it's about 1,000 or 5,000 murders in which active assistance was provided by the accused."

It was due to a case Walther put before the courts in the early 2000s, the conviction of former SS guard John Demjanjuk, that jurisprudence was set in 2011, allowing prosecutors to charge people for aiding, abetting, or serving as part of Adolf Hitler's extermination machine.

Until then, direct participation in the murder had to be proven.

"The relatives of those killed, countless families that have been completely wiped out, have the right to this late justice," Walther said.

Josef S was 21 when he first became a chief corporal at Sachsenhausen in 1942. Now almost 101, he is considered able to appear in court for up to two and half hours a day.

The trial is due to continue until January.

Reluctance to pursue former Nazis after WWII

In the early years after World War Two, Germans were reluctant to pursue former Nazis, many of whom were still working in key administrative and judicial positions.

Most people were focused on rebuilding a country in ruins, and many remained in denial about past crimes. Prosecutors and judges 30 or 40 years ago were likely to abandon proceedings or to deliver acquittals on Nazi crimes.

"Such practices have nothing to do with law and justice," Walther said, adding that the trials serve as valuable deterrence even today. "It is always a reminder for the present – there are places and actions one can't be a part of."

Today's trial is especially important for 17 co-plaintiffs, relatives of victims and survivors of Sachsenhausen.

Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp

Located about 30 kilometres north of Berlin, the Sachsenhausen camp held 200,000 detainees between 1936 and 1945, mainly resistance fighters, Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, and prisoners of war.

100,000 inmates died from forced labour, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.