A court in Germany has found a 101-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard guilty of participating in the murder of thousands during World War II, sentencing him to five years behind bars.

The centenarian, later identified by local media as Josef Schuetz, had continuously denied allegations that he worked as a Schutzstaffel (SS) Guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.

The Sachsenhausen concentration camp was built in 1936 through forced labor by prisoners from other camps in the Emsland region in Germany. It housed over 200,000 internees during the Holocaust, specifically between 1936 and 1945. These included the political foes of the Nazi Party, homosexuals, Jews, and other minority groups deemed inferior by the regime.

Tens of thousands perished in Sachsenhausen due to disease, hunger, medical experiments, mistreatment, and genocidal acts by the German SS. In the autumn of 1941, camp guards facilitated the slaughter of some 13,000 prisoners composed of Soviet prisoners of war and Jews.

During the trials, which began last October, Schuetz claimed to have been a civilian, working as a farm laborer at Pasewalk in northeastern Germany during the period. However, this conflicted with historical documents that bore his name and birth information.

“I don’t know why I’m sitting here in the sin bin. I really had nothing to do with it,” Schuetz said in his closing statement the day before the verdict was announced.

The allegations against him include abetting and assisting in the “execution by firing squad of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942” and the murder of camp prisoners using Zyklon B – a pesticide converted into a lethal killing agent by the SS. Accounting for the decades since the war, this would make Schuetz around 21 years old during the time in question.

According to Deutsche Welle, Schuetz is the oldest living individual to be tried for participating in Nazi crimes during the Second World War. Considering the defendant’s age and health, the trial was done at a gymnasium in Brandenburg an der Havel. As a result, the defendant could only participate for around two and a half hours daily, with frequent breaks for health checkups and hospital stays.

The Neuruppin Regional Court found that Schuetz indeed worked at the concentration camp from 1942 to 1945 as an enlisted member of the Nazi Party. The investigation found that the former Nazi guard was guilty of aiding in the murder of 3,518 people.

“The court has come to the conclusion that, contrary to what you claim, you worked in the concentration camp as a guard for about three years,” Presiding Judge Udo Lechtermann said, adding that this makes the defendant complicit in the Nazi Party’s reign of terror.

“You willingly supported this mass extermination with your activity,” Lechtermann said. “You watched deported people being cruelly tortured and murdered there every day for three years.”

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The court sentenced Schuetz to five years in prison. However, his defense attorney, Stefan Waterkamp, has announced that they would appeal the verdict.

“Even if the defendant will probably not serve the full prison sentence due to his advanced age, the verdict is to be welcomed,” the Head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said.

“The thousands of people who worked in the concentration camps kept the murder machinery running. They were part of the system, so they should take responsibility for it,” Schuster added. “It is bitter that the defendant has denied his activities at that time until the end and has shown no remorse.”

Photo of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, by the royal air force, dated 1943 (RAF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
Photo of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, by the royal air force, dated 1943 (RAF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Head investigator at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, Efraim Zuroff, said Schuetz’s trial “sends a message that if you commit such crimes, even decades later, you might be brought to justice.”

Over 75 years after the atrocities of the Third Reich, prosecutors in Germany are scrambling to bring the last living perpetrators of the Nazi regime to justice before they succumb to old age. The result of a 2011 trial against John Demjanjuk, a man born in 1920 who was found guilty of his involvement with Nazi war crimes, set a precedent for future trials.

Aside from Demjanjuk, the German prosecution has brought Oskar Gröning, referred to as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” and Reinhold Hanning, an SS guard at Auschwitz, to trial. Both were 94-year-old when convicted but died before spending time in prison.

“And it’s a very important thing because it gives closure to the relatives of the victims. The fact that these people all of a sudden feel that their loss is being addressed and the suffering of their family who they lost in the camps is being addressed … is a very important thing.”