The Nazi death camp guard brought to justice in 2019 – and why his trial matters

Former SS guard Bruno Dey covers his face as he arrives at the courtroom in Hamburg, October 2019
Held to account: former SS guard Bruno Dey covers his face as he arrives at the courtroom in Hamburg, October 2019 - Markus Scholz/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

On October 17 2019, the trial began in Hamburg of a 93-year-old man, brought into the courtroom in his wheelchair and followed in by his wife and daughter. He admitted in the opening question from the judge, Anne Meier-Göring, that he was Bruno Dey, accused of assisting in the murder of 5,230 prisoners at the Stutthof concentration camp, in what is now Poland, during the ­Second World War.

Dey didn’t deny that he’d been a guard at Stutthof – he’d admitted as much in an interview back in 1982 – and no one was suggesting he had pulled the trigger on anyone, beaten or tortured a single person, or closed the doors on the camp’s gas chamber. He was, though, accused of knowing what was going on, and not only doing nothing to stop the murders, but by being part of the apparatus that made them possible, actively aiding the crimes.

At the time, Dey had been just 17. His family had never been members of the Nazi party, Dey himself had managed to avoid joining the Hitler Youth, and it was only because of the desperate state of Germany in 1944 that teenagers like him were being called up. Somehow, he’d managed to convince doctors that he had a heart condition, and so avoided the frontline service that might well have seen him slaughtered in combat. Instead, he’d been posted to the SS and sent to Stutthof, where he’d spent his days, armed with a rifle, at the top of a watch tower.

How attitudes in postwar Germany changed. In the years after the war, there had been the Nuremberg trials, and a number of camp commandants had been executed, but the vast majority, the millions of Nazi Party members, voters and supporters, had mostly been deemed Mitläufer – people who run with the crowd – and allowed to go home. Instead, a strange inversion of history took root, in which those who had allowed Hitler and the regime to unleash a global war had convinced themselves that they were the victims.

All this changed in 1963, in what became known as the Frankfurt Aus­chwitz Trial, brought by a tenacious Jewish lawyer called Fritz Bauer in response to a denouncement of Wilhelm Boger, a former senior SS officer at Auschwitz. Although there had been long years of judicial neglect, Bauer was able to prosecute not only Boger but 23 others, too. He is just one of the many extraordinary characters that run through this gripping and fascinating book.

Confronting the past: Tobias Buck, author of Final Verdict
Confronting the past: Tobias Buck, author of Final Verdict

Some are remarkable heroes, others despicable villains. One of the latter was Josef Klehr, a medical nurse at Auschwitz who would lethally inject prisoners in the heart with phenol. In one of the many memorable passages in this absorbing book, Tobias Buck writes of the testimony of Ján Weis, a prisoner at Auschwitz who had to carry away the bodies of those killed by Klehr. One day, Weis’s father was brought in. “I started to cry,” Weis told the court. But Klehr had not been moved. “He gave my father the injection, and I carried him, my father, away.”

The trial brought these terrible crimes to the forefront in Germany for the first time. No one could ­reasonably deny what had gone on after this – and yet although all those on trial were convicted, the judge, Hans Hofmeyer, had missed the essential truth, that the Holocaust was not mainly the work of sadists but the industrial murder of millions by a complicit population.

Law relies on precedent, and the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial set one that would make it harder to bring minor players to trial in the future. That legal precedence was only broken with the trial, in 2009, of John Demjanjuk, a former guard at Sobibor. Rather than having ­specific murders pinned on him, he was accused of aiding the death camp itself – and convicted. It was the vital change that led directly to the trial of Bruno Dey, one that Buck followed each day and which prompted him to question the meaning of Germany’s guilt and to undertake a quest into his own ­family’s part in the regime. In Final Verdict, he meets survivors, charts the remarkable regrowth of the country’s Jewish community, and asks questions about the future of remembrance once the last of the perpetrators and their victims are no longer with us.

He also follows Dey’s trial to its conclusion. It was on the 10th day of the trial that Judge Meier-Göring – one of Buck’s undisputed heroes – finally persuaded Dey to admit that he could have walked away from the appalling crimes he witnessed, but chose not to, and thus succ­umbed to what Oskar Gröning, a for­mer bookkeeper at Auschwitz who was tried in 2015, termed the “comfort of obedience”. For there is no record of a single guard or SS man being punished for refusing to serve in the camps. Dey could have walked away; it would probably have meant being posted to the front, but instead he remained and watched people being led away to be shot and gassed. Feeling pressure to conform, and fear for his own future, he simply looked on. He contributed to the Holocaust.

James Holland’s books include The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943. Final Verdict : A Holocaust Trial in the Twenty-First Century is published by W&N at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books