A 94-year-old former Nazi SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp has been convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
The state court in the northern German city of Lueneburg gave Oskar Groening a four-year sentence. In their verdict, judges went beyond the 3 1/2-year sentence prosecutors had sought. Groening's defense team had called for him to be acquitted, arguing that as far as the law is concerned he did not facilitate mass murder.
The trial was the first to test a new line of German legal reasoning that has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects. Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.
When his trial opened on April 21, Groening testified that he volunteered to join the SS in 1940 after training as a banker, and served at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. By his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to work at the camp in 1942, he inspected people's luggage, removed and counted any bank notes that were inside and sent the money to SS offices in Berlin, where the stolen funds helped to finance the Nazi war effort. That earned him the moniker "Accountant of Auschwitz."
Prosecutors said his actions amounted to helping the death camp function, and the trial went to the heart of the question of whether people who were small cogs in the Nazi machinery, but did not actively participate in the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, were guilty of crimes. Until recently, the answer from the German justice system had been they were not guilty.
Groening didn't mention directly participating in any atrocities and said he unsuccessfully sought a transfer after witnessing one.
"I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide," Groening told the panel of judges hearing the case.
Unusually for trials of former Nazi camp guards, Groening was open about his past throughout the proceedings.
The charges against Groening related to a period between May and July 1944 when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Nazi-occupied Poland and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.