A 94-Year-Old Man Is On Trial: Justified?

On the 6th November, former Nazi guard, Johann Rehbogen, went on trial for his complicity in the murder of hundreds of people in Stutthof Camp, Poland. This is not the first trial of its kind: the Third Reich left a bloody mark on history.

On the surface, this is an open and shut case. I can say with absolute certainty that anyone who either facilitated or was complicit in the mass genocide of Jewish people and the killing of millions of others deserves a life imprisonment without due consideration. This case is interesting: Johann Rehbogen, the man in question, is now ninety-four. Regardless of this, I do not argue that he doesn’t deserve punishment for his crimes. If he is convicted, Rehbogen faces a prison sentence of fifteen years: fifteen years which he will, quite frankly, not last. Serving in Stutthof Camp for three years, he was under twenty-one at the time of his service, and so is now being tried in a juvenile court. Yes, you read that correctly: an elderly man is being tried in a juvenile court.

I never thought I’d say this, but it is perhaps understandable why one might sympathise with this man. He is in a wheelchair; his mental state is a constant question mark, and the hearings are restricted to two hours each day on account of his ill health. Similarly, Oskar Groning was sentenced at the age of ninety-six for membership of the Nazi Party. He died before his term even started, so is it really worth it?

Furthermore, the court is unlikely to sentence Rehbogen to any time in prison on account of his age. Can it really be argued that this man should be allowed dignity in death? Should he be allowed to live out his remaining years? Navigating this case is tricky. When I first read the BBC report about this trial, I’ll admit I did immediately sympathise with this old, frail man. Over the summer, I went to Krakow and visited the Auschwitz extermination camps. After reflection, I realised that I couldn’t sympathise with this man or allow him any dignity. In working at the Stutthof Camp, he was complicit in the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of innocent people. This cannot be excused and it must not be forgotten.

Sentencing individuals for crimes such as these is important: not only does it give closure to the families of those who were brutally murdered, but it also demonstrates that war crimes cannot go unaddressed. Despite this, Rehbogen denied the accusations that he served in these camps. In an interview with Spiegel, he stated that “everyone knew” the corpses were being burnt because of the unavoidable smell. This clearly demonstrates that the Nazi guards did know what was happening, which, if anything, makes Rehbogen’s testament that he knew nothing all the more cowardly and wretched.

Germany cannot heal the wounds of the past if it does not try war criminals. In Auschwitz, there are rooms full of shoes and clothes of former prisoners. Seeing a sight such as this, all sympathy for an old man, for me, completely disappears. Research found that only around ten per cent of Nazi guards were pathological killers: the rest were complicit by guarding or working in the camps. This is a poor attempt at justifying their actions, creating the illusion that they were not involved in the genocide. The systematic extermination of millions of people cannot be excused: justice must be done, even if it means sentencing a ninety-four-year-old Nazi to prison.

Freya Hillyer

Photo: AP.