Berlin (AFP) – A 94-year-old former SS guard on trial for complicity in 170,000 murders at Auschwitz broke his silence Friday for the first time since the war, telling victims: “I am truly sorry.”
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Reinhold Hanning admitted to a German court that he knew prisoners were being shot, gassed and cremated at the death camp in occupied Poland.
“I could see how the bodies were being transported here and there and then away. I could smell the burning. I knew that people were burning bodies,” he said.
“I believe that every guard knew what was happening. This is regardless of the duty that one was carrying out.
“Of course some were closer to it than others. By close I mean close to the killings.”
Hanning said he had been “silent all my life” about the atrocities he witnessed at the camp where more than one million European Jews died, and had never spoken a word about it to his wife, children or grandchildren.
“No one in my family knew that I worked at Auschwitz. I simply could not talk about it. I was ashamed,” said the white-haired, bespectacled widower, who owned a dairy store after the war.
“I want to tell you that I deeply regret having listened to a criminal organisation that is responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, for the destruction of countless families, for the misery, distress and suffering on the part of victims and their relatives.
“I am ashamed that I let this injustice happen and have done nothing to prevent it.
“I apologise formally for my behaviour. I am truly sorry,” he said.
– Can’t talk about it –
Hanning stands accused of having watched over the selection of which prisoners were fit for labour, and which should be sent to gas chambers.
He is also deemed to have been aware of the regular mass shooting of inmates at the camp, as well as the systematic starvation of prisoners.
At the opening of his trial in February, one of the witnesses, Leon Schwarzbaum, 90, made a plea for him to tell the truth.
“We are almost the same age. We’ll both face our highest judge soon,” he told the defendant, urging him to explain the atrocities at Auschwitz.
In the statement that detailed how at 13 he joined Hitler Youth, and at 19 years old, the SS at the urging of a stepmother who was anxious to get him out of his father’s house, Hanning said no one dared to speak of what they experienced while at Auschwitz.
“You saw what happened but could not talk about it with your comrades,” he said, adding that at the camp, “I trusted no one.”
“Very little was spoken. No one knew if someone would repeat what one said to someone else,” he said.
He said he had applied for a transfer out of the camp, but failed on both tries.
“I have tried my whole life to block out this period. Auschwitz was a nightmare. I wish I had never been there,” he said.
– ‘Polished and calculated’ –
Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee representing victims, told Bild newspaper however that Hanning’s statement was “polished and calculated as if he had been a spectator at Auschwitz”.
“This is not an admission of guilt, but a statement from the perspective of a spectator,” he said.
Among the 6,500 former SS personnel at Auschwitz who survived the war, fewer than 50 have been convicted.
Hanning’s trial came on the heels of a high-profile case last year against Oskar Groening, dubbed the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”.
Groening was sentenced in July to four years in prison, even though he had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.
But the legal foundation for prosecuting ex-Nazis changed in 2011 with the German conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk, solely on the basis of his having worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.
Another case is currently being heard by a German court, against former SS medic Hubert Zafke, 95, who is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in killings.
That case has however been suspended twice due to the defendant’s poor health, raising questions whether it can proceed.