Sachsenhausen Camp

Sachsenhausen Camp has come to symbolize two extremes
Published: 2022-12-11

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 Although many have questioned the wisdom of prosecutions related to National Socialist crimes so long after the events, the German government has stepped up a campaign of prosecution of elderly people who were marginally involved in the operation of German detention camps.   

An example is the months long trial of Josef Schuetz.  Schuetz was Lithuanian-born German who was accused of being a perimeter guard at Sachsenhausen detention camp. He was not accused of personal involvement in acts of brutality or killing, but merely being there.    Since, at age 101, it is unlikely he will serve any jail time (other than the time he already spent in a Soviet POW camp), one might wonder why hold a lengthy and expensive trial? 

On June 2022, at the age of 101, Josef Schuetz was handed a five year sentence for “complicity in war crimes.” 

I’m happy that he got the maximum sentence…” crowed Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff  on leaving the courthouse; adding “These trials help fight Holocaust denial and distortion.” 

 Jerusalem Post

Guillaume Mouralis, a research professor at the Center Marc Bloch declared such trials send an important signal. 'It is a question of reaffirming the political and moral responsibility of individuals in an authoritarian context (and in a criminal regime) at a time when the neo-fascist far right is strengthening everywhere in Europe'

Karen Pollock CBE, the Chief Executive of the British charity Holocaust Educational Trust: 'The passage of time is no barrier to justice when it comes to the heinous crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. Every time someone is found guilty of these crimes, regardless of their age, the truth of the Holocaust is reaffirmed for all to see.’ 

So, Germany is engaging is a flurry of last minute show trials of the elderly. This campaign started with the 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk. That case  set two legal precedents; that the Accused did not have to be directly involved in any crime to be guilty of abetting a murder during the Holocaust; and a Holocaust survivor who testifies in a German court does not have to directly identify the accused.  The removal of these long established protections for defendants paved the way the current  “wrong place-wrong time” prosecutions

A Show Trial in a Gymnasium

The trial of Josef Schuetz opened on October 7, 2021 and lasted until June 28, 2022.  The Neuruppin Regional Court convened  the trial in the local gymnasium in the expectation of large audiences and an extensive media presence.

Scheutz  denied any wrongdoing but did not put up any defense other than providing information about his personal situation. The Centenarian was heard asking, “'I don't know why I am here.”    The nine month trial consisted of an unchallenged string of lurid testimony such as gruesome stories of a “neck shot' facility.”  Allegedly, in the “neck shot facility,”  SS guards donned white medical overalls and pretended to prisoners they were doctors concerned with their well-being. They then lined up prisoners against a wall and measured them.  Meanwhile in a neighboring room, other armed SS guards used the measurements as a setting for their guns. They would open a slit in the wall and fire into the prisoner's neck.

The trial finally ended with judge Udo Lechtermann announcing that Schuetz had worked at Sachsenhausen and had "supported" the atrocities committed there. "Due to your position on the watchtower of the concentration camp, you constantly had the smoke of the crematorium in your nose," Lechtermann announced.

These show trials debase the German justice system in numerous ways. They have created the ex post facto crime of being a “cog in Hitler’s killing machine” decades after the events.  They are not based on any wrongful acts of the accused but are an act of attainder designed to convict even when the accused did no criminal act. The sight of aged and infirm defendants dragged into court smacks of sick vengeance rather than any form of justice no matter what “nickname” the defendant is given by the press.  Importantly, the right and ability of the accused to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses is nonexistent. Judge Udo Lechtermann accepted into evidence lurid and impossible tales without a challenge. Shamefully, the Courts have embraced the idea that political trials should be allowed if the target is to “ fight Holocaust denial” or embarrass “the neo-fascist far right.”

The Real Sachsenhausen  Despite the appearance of several Jewish witnesses at the trial, Sachsenhausen mainly held political prisoners. Prominent prisoners included Joseph Stalin's oldest son, Yakov DzhugashviliPaul Reynaud, ex-Prime Minister of France; Francisco Largo Caballero, ex-Prime Minister of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War; the wife and children of the Crown Prince of BavariaUkrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera; and numerous political dissidents.  The camp was dominated by communists who often brutalized non-Communists.

Special Camp No. 1

In 1990 three mass graves holding 12,000 bodies were uncovered at Sachsenhausen.  After a brief attempt to attribute the crime to the National Socialists, it became clear  the bodies were from the period when Sachsenhausen was used as “Special Camp N0. 1” by the Soviet NKVD, that is from August 1945 until 1950. The bodies were  mainly women and children.

By 1948, Sachsenhausen was renamed "Special Camp No. 1," and was the largest concentration camp in the Soviet Occupation Zone. 60,000 people were interned in Special Camp No. 1 during the five years the Red Star flew over Sachsenhausen including 6,000 German officers transferred from Western Allied camps. Others internees were Social Democrats, anti-Communists and Russian political prisoners. By the time the camp was closed in the spring of 1950 thousands had died.

The current Sachsenhausen Museum administration is remarkably unclear on how many people  died in Special Camp No. 1.  They seem to only count bodies actually found and identified, i.e., 11,890.

But the administration also lists only 17,672 inmates as having been released. This leaves about 30,000 people unaccounted for.  The higher figure ties in with estimates that the Soviet camps had a death rate of 35% of their internees.

The apparent answer is that more people died under the Soviet occupation than those victims whose bodies were tossed into a mass grave.  Special Camp No. 1 did have German era cremation facilities and probably used them.  The current museum administration just doesn’t care enough to investigate.

Neither does the Museum administration post the names of the operators of Special Camp No. 1.   As far as is known, no guard or administrator of Special Camp No. 1 has faced justice.  It is something to contemplate that the mass murderers of Special Camp No. 1 have all been protected, while the German government tracks down old men who have committed no crime. It certainly underscores the bitter hypocrisy of the current “Trials of the Aged.” 

Sachsenhausen Camp has come to symbolize two extremes; an intense effort to memorialize and exploit the tragedies that occurred in 100 months between 1936 and 1945 and a remarkable indifference and extenuation of the tragedies that occurred in 60 months between 1945 and 1950.  


[1] These include:

Oskar Groening, prosecuted at 94 an accountant at Auschwitz, Reinhold Hanning, prosecuted at 94, a perimeter guard at Auschwitz.  Bruno Dey, prosecuted at 93 in 2020 and given a two-year suspended sentence.  Irmgard Furchner, currently prosecuted at 96 years-old and branded by the media “the Secretary of Evil,”was only 18 when she worked as a secretary in Stutthof camp, Furchner is now on trial for complicity in the murder of more than 10,000 people..

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Author(s): David Merlin
Title: Sachsenhausen Camp, Sachsenhausen Camp has come to symbolize two extremes
Published: 2022-12-11
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 11, 2022, 1:15 a.m.
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