A 94-year-old former SS sergeant has admitted in court that he had served as an Auschwitz death camp guard, apologising to Nazi Holocaust survivors looking on in a German courtroom.

Reinhold Hanning told the state court in Detmold on Friday that he was aware Jews were being gassed and their corpses burned, and he did nothing to try to stop it.

The former officer in Hitler's elite paramilitary unit said that he had never spoken about his service in Auschwitz from January 1942 to June 1944, even to his family, but wanted to use his trial as an opportunity to set the record straight.

"I want to say that it disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organisation," he said as he sat in a wheelchair, talking with a weak voice into a microphone.

"I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologise for my actions. I am very, very sorry."

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum attends the trial of 94-year-old former SS sergeant Reinhold Hanning in Detmold [AP]

Survivors watch 

As he spoke, Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum watched from about five metres away, afterwards saying he was happy Hanning apologised but that it was not enough.

"I lost 35 family members, how can you apologise for that?" the 95-year-old said.

"I am not angry, I don't want him to go to prison but he should say more for the sake of the young generation today because the historical truth is important."

Hanning is charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations that as a guard he helped the death camp to function, so can legally be found guilty of accessory to murder.

Schwarzbaum is one of some 40 Holocaust survivors who has joined the trial as co-plaintiff, as allowed under German law, though only one other was in court to hear Hanning.

Prosecutors said there was good evidence already that Hanning served in the camp, but that his admission Friday could help to win a conviction, the Associated Press reported.

Pleas are not entered in the German system and such statements to the court are not uncommon, and frequently help mitigate the length of a sentence.

Hanning faces a possible 15 years in prison if convicted but at his age it is unlikely he will ever spend time behind bars given the length of the appeals process.

'I could smell the burning bodies'

Ahead of the short statement he made himself, Hanning's attorney Johannes Salmen read a 22-page statement from Hanning detailing how his client had joined the Hitler Youth with his class in 1935 at age 13, then volunteered at 18 for the Waffen SS in 1940 at the urging of his stepmother.

He fought in several battles before being hit by grenade splinters in his head and leg during close combat in Kiev in 1941.

Hanning spoke fondly of his time at the front and said as he was recovering from his wounds he asked to be sent back but his commander decided he was no longer fit for frontline duty, so sent him to Auschwitz.

"People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned," he told the court.

He was later assigned to a guard tower and had orders to shoot prisoners trying to escape, but he did not say whether he ever shot anyone himself.

Nearly one million Jews and tens of thousands of others were slaughtered at the death camp.

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Source: AP