A 93-year-old former SS guard has been found guilty of accessory to the murder of 5,232 people at a Nazi concentration camp in the final days of the second world war.
Bruno Dey, who was 17 when he joined Stutthof concentration camp as a guard, was handed a two-year suspended sentence by a youth court in Hamburg on Thursday morning.
The state prosecutor had requested a three-year suspended sentence, while the defence had demanded acquittal.
“The concentration camp Stutthof and the mass murder that took place inside was only able to take place with your help,” said the judge Anne Meier-Göring in her verdict.
The trial, which started in October, was continued despite the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Court sessions were limited to two two-hour slots a week and the accused sat in a wheelchair inside a plexiglass box. Journalists were only allowed to follow the proceedings via an audio line in a separate room.
Despite his advanced age Dey followed the proceedings “alertly”, Meier-Göring said.
Dey was found to have assisted the murder of 5,232 mostly Jewish prisoners between August 1944 and April 1945 without personally firing a shot.
The figure includes 5,000 prisoners who died in a typhus outbreak because they were denied access to food, water and medication as well as catastrophic hygiene conditions, 200 people who were gassed with Zyklon B and 30 people who were executed with a device built for killing with a shot in the neck.
Prosecutors argued that by stopping prisoners from escaping, guards played a crucial role in allowing mass killings to take place at Stutthof, where an estimated 65,000 people perished before 9 May 1945, when the camp was liberated by allied forces.
Over the course of 45 days in court, Dey said he had witnessed bodies being carted away from enclosure, and that these “images of suffering and terror” had haunted him for the rest of his life.
On the penultimate day in court, earlier this week, he issued an apology: “The eyewitness accounts and expert reports have for the first time made me fully aware of the extent of cruelty and suffering,” Dey said. “Today I want to apologise to those who went through this hellish madness and their relatives. Something like this must never be repeated.”
However, Dey claimed not to have been aware of the full extent of the systemic mass murder taking place inside the camp, nor his own role in facilitating it. “I am not guilty,” Dey said earlier in the trial. “I didn’t do direct harm to anyone.”
Meier-Göring said she believed Dey had still not fully engaged with the suffering of those whose escape he had prevented, and saw himself as a passive spectator rather than a perpetrator. “For you it [Stutthof] was not hell, it was monotonous work.”
The court heard that in at least one instance Dey stood watch on the tower directly next to a chamber where a mass gassing took place and would have heard the Jewish prisoners screaming and beating the walls. “If only you had wrestled with your conscience,” Meier-Göring told him.
During the trial, a historian questioned Dey’s claim that he would have faced severe punishment for requesting a transfer away from the camp. Thousands of SS guards were granted transfers from camps to field service, said Stefan Hördler, yet Dey had remained at Stutthof until April 1945. “You did not seek a way out,” the judge said.
Stutthof, which was one of the smaller concentration camps, was set up to detain members of the Polish political leadership and intelligentsia, but from 1944 was increasingly used to hold and kill Jews transferred from the Baltic states, Hungary and the Auschwitz concentration camp. By the end of 1944, 70% of Stutthof’s population was Jewish.
About 40 survivors or their descendants were co-plaintiffs in the trial and the majority appeared via a video link.
Marek Dunin-Wąsowicz, a former Polish resistance fighter and Stutthof inmate, was one of four co-plaintiffs to appear in court in person. He told the Guardian: “This is a good outcome, which will serve as a warning against the resurgence of fascism and rightwing extremism in Europe and elsewhere.”
The trial was hailed as potentially the last criminal case of an individual charged over the Holocaust. However, another guard at Stutthof could soon go on trial in Wuppertal, pending a medical assessment of the accused’s fitness to stand trial.
Germany’s Central Office of State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, which sifts through historical records in search of further cases to bring to trial, says it is investigating a further 14 individuals over crimes committed in concentration camps.