Berlin — A former Nazi concentration camp guard was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison for "complicity in murders during his service in the Sachsenhausen camp" between 1942 and 1945. At 101, Josef Schütz was the oldest person ever to stand trial for crimes committed by the Nazi regime.
Addressing Schütz in the courtroom in Brandenburg-an-der-Havel, judge Udo Lechtermann, told the former guard that he had been "aware that prisoners were killed there," and that by his "presence, you supported [these acts]. Anyone who wanted to flee the camp was shot. Thus, every camp guard actively participated in these murders."
Given Schütz's age and poor health, he is unlikely to actually serve any time behind bars.
Over the course of more than 30 hearings in the case, which was postponed several times due to the defendant's health, he never expressed any regret. On the contrary, in court on Monday, he once again denied any involvement in the Nazi regime's genocide, asking aloud why he was even there and insisting "everything is false" about the charges against him.
Schütz has offered several accounts of his past, some of them contradictory, and has admitted that at his age, "everything is torn apart" in his head.
Recently he claimed to have left Lithuania at the beginning of World War II to live in Germany, but he said he merely spent the war years working on a farm.
"I pulled up trees, planted trees," he told the court, saying he never even wore a German uniform.
But that account is contested by several historical documents presented to the court, identifying him by his name, date and place of birth, saying he was assigned from the end of 1942 until the beginning of 1945 to the Totenkopf ("death's head") division of the Nazis' notorious SS paramilitary force.
Schütz was 21 when the documents show his service with the SS began. He's suspected of having shot Soviet prisoners, of "aiding and abetting systematic murders" by means of Zyklon B gas, and of "holding prisoners in hostile conditions" at the Sachsenhausen camp, which was only about 20 miles north of Berlin.
In his closing statement, delivered to the court in mid-May, public prosecutor Cyrill Klement said the evidence presented by the prosecution was "entirely confirmed," reproaching Schütz for not only having accepted the conditions at the camp, but for making a career of it.
There is "no doubt that Mr. Schütz worked in Sachsenhausen," Klement insisted. He had called for a sentence longer than the minimum three years possible for the charge of complicity in murders.
"A sentence of less than five years could not be accepted by the plaintiffs," said Thomas Walther, a lawyer who represented 11 of the 16 plaintiffs in the case, including seven Holocaust survivors.
Between its opening in 1936 and its liberation by the Soviet army on April 22, 1945, the Sachsenhausen camp held about 200,000 prisoners, including political dissidents, Jews and people accused of homosexuality. Tens of thousands of them died, many succumbing to the harsh conditions in the forced labor camp.
After a long period of reluctance to put all surviving perpetrators of the Nazis' crimes on trial, Germany has expanded its investigations over the last decade. While proving specific crimes is often difficult given the long period that has passed, camp guards and other individual cogs in the Nazi machine can and are.
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