Oskar Groening, now 93, goes on trial Tuesday in a state court in the northern city of Lueneburg on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.
Groening’s trial is the first to test a line of German legal reasoning opened by the 2011 trial of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he was a Sobibor death camp guard, which 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.
Groening has openly acknowledged serving as an SS non-commissioned officer at Auschwitz, though denies committing any crimes.
His attorney, Hans Holtermann, has prevented Groening from giving any interviews, but said his client will make a statement as the trial opens. Earlier, Groening said he felt an obligation to talk about his past to confront those who deny the Holocaust.
“I want to tell those deniers that I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits, and I want to assure you that these atrocities happened,” he said. “I was there.”
Though acknowledgement of his past could help mitigate the 15-year maximum sentence Groening faces if convicted, the court’s focus will be on whether legally he can be found an accessory to murder for his actions.
Groening is accused of helping to operate the death camp between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.
His job was to deal with the belongings stolen from camp victims. Prosecutors allege among other things that he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found, which has earned him the moniker “the accountant of Auschwitz” from the German media.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said even low-ranking guards were necessary for Adolf Hitler’s genocidal machine to run.
“The system that the Nazis put in place in order to annihilate the Jewish people and the others they classified as enemies was made up of all sorts of people who fulfilled all sorts of tasks,” Zuroff said in a telephone interview.