By David Courbet
A German court on Tuesday handed a five-year jail sentence to a 101-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard, the oldest person so far to go on trial for complicity in war crimes during the Holocaust.
Josef Schuetz was found guilty of being an accessory to murder in at least 3,500 cases while working as a prison guard at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1945.
He is highly unlikely to be put behind bars given his age.
The pensioner, who now lives in Brandenburg state, had pleaded innocent, saying he did “absolutely nothing” and had not even worked at the camp.
“I don’t know why I am here,” he said at the close of his trial on Monday.
But presiding judge Udo Lechtermann said he was convinced Schuetz had worked at Sachsenhausen and had “supported” the atrocities committed there.
“For three years, you watched prisoners being tortured and killed before your eyes,” Lechtermann said.
“Due to your position on the watchtower of the concentration camp, you constantly had the smoke of the crematorium in your nose,” he said.
“Anyone who tried to escape from the camp was shot. So every guard was actively involved in these murders.”
More than 200,000 people, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people, were detained at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1936 and 1945.
Tens of thousands of 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.
Schuetz, who was 21 when he began working at the camp, remained blank-faced as the court announced his sentence.
“I am ready,” he said when he entered the courtroom earlier in a wheelchair, dressed in a grey shirt and striped trousers.
Schuetz was not detained during the trial, which began in 2021 but was postponed several times because of his health.
His lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, told AFP he would appeal — meaning the sentence will not be enforced until 2023 at the earliest.
Thomas Walther, the lawyer who represented 11 of the 16 civil parties in the trial, said the sentencing had met their expectations and “justice has been served”.
But Antoine Grumbach, 80, whose father died in Sachsenhausen, said he could “never forgive” Schuetz as “any human being facing atrocities has a duty to oppose them”.
During the trial, Schuetz had made several inconsistent statements about his past, complaining that his head was getting “mixed up”.
At one point, the centenarian said he had worked as an agricultural labourer in Germany for most of World War II, a claim contradicted by several historical documents bearing his name, date and place of birth.
‘Warning to perpetrators’
After the war, Schuetz was transferred to a prison camp in Russia before returning to Germany, where he worked as a farmer and a locksmith.
More than seven decades after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice.
The 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent and paved the way for several of these justice cases.
Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.
Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.
Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder but died before they could be imprisoned.
However, Schuetz’s five-year sentence is the longest so far handed to a defendant in such a case.
Guillaume Mouralis, a research professor at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), told AFP the verdict was “a warning to the perpetrators of mass crimes: whatever their level of responsibility, there is still legal liability.”