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Elderly Former Nazi Death Camps Guard On Trial In Germany


A 94-year-old man who served as a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp more than seven decades ago goes on trial today in Germany. The charges - 170,000 counts of accessory to murder. He is one of several elderly Germans who will be on trial this year for Nazi war crimes. Let's turn to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is on the line from Berlin. Soraya, good morning.


GREENE: Kind of a stunning number of charges here - 170,000 counts. I mean, tell us the story of this man.

NELSON: Well, his name is Reinhold Hanning. And he comes from a small town called Lage. And that's located in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is the German state where this trial is taking place. And he is charged in connection with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz in 1944. Hanning says he was a guard at the labor camp section of Auschwitz but says he wasn't assigned to the section where victims were gassed to death. But the prosecutor questions that. He says that Hanning's unit was one of many that was called up to deal with the arrivals of the death camp section. And he says that the fact that Hanning rose quickly in the unlisted ranks, that that wouldn't have happened unless something - he had done something to warrant that or justify that. So the way the prosecutor came up with the 170,000 number is that he used transport logs of the Hungarian Jewish victims, and overlapped those with the times Hanning would have been there.

GREENE: So some debate, though, as to exactly where he was assigned, what he was assigned to do. I mean, will there be survivors who actually testifying here?

NELSON: Yes. This week, in fact, three of them will take the stand. And they are going to be joining the prosecutors as co-plaintiffs, which is allowed under German law. And these three victims, like Hanning, they're in their 90s. And they will testify about their own horrific experiences at Auschwitz but not about what Hanning did per se because none of them remembers him. They say the trial is important to getting justice, not just for themselves but for other victims, even if it is more than 70 years late. And I should mention that Hanning's case is among 30 this German special prosecutor for Nazi war crimes is pursuing in which the suspects are still alive.

GREENE: You say 70 years late in the minds of some, which makes me wonder why this case is only being brought now so many years after the Nazi era.

NELSON: Well, the problem is that it was only been a few years that the German courts broadened the definition of who prosecutors could go after. It used to be that it was limited to defendants directly linked to any deaths at these Nazi concentration camps. But now anyone who makes the death camps run - in other words, you know, the cogs in the wheel, if you will, including guards, medics and office workers - can be held responsible for the atrocities committed there. Prosecutor Andreas Brendel told German public broadcaster ARD last night that there is no statute of limitation on murder. And he is obliged, even now, to go after people like Hanning for moral reasons.


ANDREAS BRENDEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He is saying that we owe it to the victims and families given the gravity of what the Nazis did to them and the kinds of murders and the sheer number that they committed and their perfidious reasons for doing so.

GREENE: So will the former Nazi guard go to prison if he's convicted here?

NELSON: It's unlikely given the fact that he is very old and he has a lot of health issues. And certainly that's what happened with the last defendant, Oskar Groening. He was convicted last July. He was called the bookkeeper of Auschwitz. And he ended up getting a four-year sentence but has yet to serve a day because his lawyers are appealing. In Hanning's case, the doctors have limited his availability at the trial to only two hours a day.

GREENE: All right, going to be a stunning scene with some of these elderly Germans involved in a trial in Germany. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson will be following it for us. Soraya, thanks a lot.

NELSON: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.