A former Auschwitz guard has gone on trial in Germany accused of being implicated in the deaths of 170,000 Jews.
Reinhold Hanning, 93, is alleged to have joined Adolf Hitler’s Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary organisation at the age of 18, taking part in battles in eastern Europe before becoming a guard at the camp in 1942.
Around 1.5 million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot, hanged and burned at Auschwitz in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland during the Second World War.
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The trial in the city of Detmold is the first of three scheduled this year against former SS men, as Germany races to prosecute ageing Third Reich criminals.
Christoph Heubner, vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee representing victims, said it was an opportunity to make up “for the failures of Germany’s justice system”.
Among the 6,500 former SS personnel at Auschwitz who survived the war, fewer than 50 have been convicted.
Holocaust survivor Angela Orosz, who will testify against Hanning, said all Auschwitz staff “were part of this killing machine”.
“Without these people and their active support for the Holocaust, what happened in Auschwitz would not have been possible,” she said.
Due to the strong interest in the trial, Thursday’s hearing was held at Detmold’s chamber of commerce, which can hold more people.
An hour before it was due to open, a long queue had formed outside, where a blue banner reading “Let’s not forget” was draped.
After the charges were read out, the court was due to hear from three German plaintiffs — Holocaust survivors Leon Schwarzbaum, Erna de Vries and Justin Sonder.
Hanning stands accused of having watched over the selection of which prisoners were fit for labour, and which should be sent to gas chambers.
He is also deemed to have been aware of the regular mass shooting of inmates at the camp, as well as the systematic starvation of prisoners.
“Through his capacity as a guard, he facilitated … the several thousand killings of inmates by the main perpetrator,” prosecutors said.
Hanning has admitted to working in Auschwitz, which was liberated on 27 January, 1945, but denies a role in the killings.
If convicted, he faces between three and 15 years in jail, but in view of his age and the period required for any appeals, he is unlikely to serve time.