A former Auschwitz guard facing charges of accessory to the murder of 170,000 Hungarian Jews went on trial in Detmold, Germany on Thursday, the most recent in a sudden five-year-string of trials of former Nazis as prosecutors attempt to chase convictions for elderly suspects before the opportunity is gone for good.
Reinhold Hanning, age 94, a former sergeant in the SS squads that staffed the camp, says that he did not directly participate in murder while stationed in Auschwitz I, a concentration camp where gassings did not take place. But prosecutors allege that Auschwitz I workers were pressed into serve at nearby Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a death camp, during the time Mr. Hanning was stationed there. More than 1 million people are believed to have died in the Auschwitz camps.
Similar defense arguments, however, have lost their effect since 2011, when the trial of John Demjanjuk set a powerful precedent for future Holocaust murder trials. Mr. Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who allegedly worked at Nazi death camps in Germany and occupied Poland, then later moved to the United States, was convicted for his involvement despite a lack of evidence for any particular murder — the limitation that had made it difficult for decades to prosecute anyone but top leaders who actually directed operations. Demjanjuk died as he was appealing the ruling.
"At a place that existed solely for the purpose of murdering people, anyone who was involved in carrying out that process was an accessory to the murder that was happening there," Dr. Elizabeth White, a historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who helped the US Department of Justice investigate Demjanjuk under immigration law, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.
Since then, federal prosecutors have brought charges against a number of guards, most of whom are in their 90s. Many have been deemed too frail to stand trial. Despite the sudden uptick in trials after decades with almost none, fewer than one half of one percent of SS members at Auschwitz have been convicted, according to a 2014 investigation from German newspaper Der Spiegel.
The paper blamed public indifference to the Holocaust for years of legal silence, after top commanders were famously prosecuted immediately after World War II, and in a second series of trials in the 1960s.
But other legal, and philosophical, questions have also hindered prosecution: how can a country bring "justice" for the murder of more than 10 million people, carried out by a vast bureaucracy that distributed responsibility so widely that everyone, and no one, seems directly guilty?
Others feel that, after decades of inactivity, suddenly bringing people to trial in their last years of life amounts to scapegoating, and suspects should be allowed to live out their final days in peace.
An Auschwitz survivor testifying at Hanning's trial told reporters that it was important to record "the truth" before the generation of guards passes away. Each year, there are fewer and fewer survivors, too, making official recognition of the Holocaust all the more urgent.
Leon Schwarzbaum, who is also 94, told The Associated Press that "people responsible for helping make the whole apparatus function, even if they were a tiny gear in the machine, should be convicted."
Defendant Oskar Groening, who in 2015 was sentenced to four years for being an accessory to murder in 300,000 deaths, told the courtroom that he felt remorse, but did not consider himself legally guilty.
"I would describe my role as a 'small cog in the gears.' If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily," Mr. Groening said. "I feel guilty towards the Jewish people, guilty for being part of a group that committed these crimes, even without having been one of the perpetrators myself. I ask for forgiveness from the Jewish people. And I ask God for forgiveness."
But to Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor, the apology did not suffice. "Is there such a thing as being morally guilty but not legally guilty?" she asked, according to CBS.
As courts wrestle with whether, and how, to convict former Nazis, defense attorney have argued that their clients were trapped in a complex system, forced to carry out orders. Peter-Michael Diestel, for example, who represented a Nazi medic accused of accessory to murder at Auschwitz, said his client "had no part in the Holocaust."
"What should a young man, even if he knew what was going on in Auschwitz, do to stop it?" Mr. Diestel asked.
But the trials could be key to prevention. Challenging the idea that genocide is simply too complicated or broad to convict individuals is essential, Dr. White says.
"People have said 'Well, these guys who were still alive were really young. They were just small fry.' But to the people they helped kill, they were not small fry. They were not insignificant."
Editor's note: This story has been edited to clarify that Poland was occupied by Germany during the Holocaust.