The 94-year-old’s trial in the regional court of Muenster marks a new attempt in Germany’s race against time to prosecute surviving Nazis after a new legal precedent was set in 2011.
The man from the western district of Borken was a watchman from June 1942 to September 1944 at the Stutthof camp near what was then the free city of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland.
He was not named by prosecutors, but German daily newspaper Die Welt identified him as Johann R, a landscape architect who once worked for North Rhine-Westphalia state authorities.
As a watchman aged between 18 and 20 at the time, he is “accused in his capacity as a guard of participating in the killing operations”, Andreas Brendel, Dortmund prosecutor, told AFP news agency.
“Many people were gassed, shot or left to die of hunger.”
These included more than 100 Polish prisoners gassed on June 21 and 22, 1944, as well as “probably several hundred” Jewish prisoners killed from August to December 1944 as part of the Nazis’ so-called “Final Solution” operation.
As the guards were a crucial part of the camp system, the man “knew about the killing methods” there, said prosecutors.
But when interrogated by police in August 2017, the accused insisted he knew nothing about the atrocities in the camp, Die Welt reported.
Asked why the camp detainees were so thin, the defendant reportedly said the food was so scarce for everyone that two soldiers could fit into a uniform.
The defendant will be tried before a juvenile court as he was not yet 21 at the time of the crimes.
Given his advanced age now, each court hearing will likely last for a maximum of two hours.
“But mentally, he is still fit,” said Brendel.
If found guilty, he risks up to 15 years in prison, although the elderly man is unlikely to serve any time.
Stutthof camp was set up in 1939 and would end up holding 110,000 detainees, out of which 65,000 perished, according to Museum Stutthof.
Germany has been racing to put on trial surviving personnel of the Nazi security service known as SS, after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with the landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
He was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have committed, but on the basis that he served at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland – for having been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.
But both men, convicted at age 94, died before they could be imprisoned.
Prosecutors have also filed charges against another former SS guard at Stutthof, a 93-year-old from the city of Wuppertal. It remains to be determined if he is fit to stand trial.