The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 93-year-old former SS guard is on trial in a German juvenile court, as Nazi crimes investigations surge

Former SS concentration camp guard Bruno Dey was at the regional court in Hamburg on Thursday. (Daniel Bockwoldt/DPA/AP)

BERLIN — In what could become one of Germany’s last Nazi trials, 93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey went on trial on Thursday on 5,230 counts of accessory to murder.

The setting — a juvenile court in the northern German city of Hamburg — was an unlikely one for a pensioner in a wheelchair, but became necessary because the Dey was 17 years old when he committed the alleged crimes in the final stages of World War II. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

The case comes amid a surge in recent investigations and charges against former Nazi guards at death and concentration camps.

Investigators say that in the lead-up to the trial, Dey described gruesome scenes at the Stutthof concentration camp, near the city of Gdansk in Poland, where he worked. More than 60,000 people — including many Jews — were killed at Stutthof.

In a court statement, prosecutors alleged that Dey was “aware of all circumstances” of a “murderous apparatus” and that he “contributed to the execution of the kill order.”

Even though Stutthof was not categorized as a “death camp,” prisoners there were subject to “systematic killing,” according to the court statement. Most were shot or gassed. Some were deliberately starved to death.

Most guards responsible for the killings were never prosecuted. Dey’s defense attorney on Thursday questioned the legitimacy of the trial, which comes about four decades after Dey’s past as a Nazi guard first became known to authorities, the attorney said, according to German media reports.

But German officials have countered similar arguments in the past, saying that there was no legal basis that would have enabled the prosecution of most alleged Nazi criminals until around eight years ago. Before 2011, German courts often hesitated to charge Nazi officers and guards with murder or abetting murder because a guilty verdict would have required specific evidence connecting the guards to the death of one or more individuals.

This changed with the conviction of former Nazi guard John Demjanjuk in 2011 based on the fact that he worked at a Nazi death camp. Demjanjuk died before his appeal could be evaluated. It took until 2016 for the legality of this novel legal framework to be confirmed in a different trial, in which former Auschwitz guard Oskar Gröning was found guilty and his appeal rejected.

German courts’ new interpretation of what constitutes sufficient evidence to sentence former Nazi criminals has led to a surge in new cases in what investigators describe as the final stage of Nazi trials.

Investigators with the country’s Nazi crimes authority have rushed to reexamine old files, such as equipment or sick lists, to identify former Nazi guards who can now be put on trial. The number of filed charges has dramatically increased since 2013. Charges are pending against 23 individuals, said Thomas Will, an official with the German Nazi crimes authority.

To survivors of Nazi crimes, some of the trials have offered a path to justice. But at a time of rising concerns over anti-Semitism in Germany and other countries, the prosecutions also have become an opportunity to reflect on intolerance and hatred incited for political gain.

As the trial against Dey began on Thursday, a representative for the dozens of plaintiffs in the case pointed at the anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in the German city of Halle last week — in which two people were killed — as evidence that the trial was “urgently needed.”

Read more:

How Boris Johnson could pass his Brexit deal on ‘Super Saturday’ — and who could stand in the way

Pro-government forces make fragile gains against Taliban in northeast Afghanistan

In Turkey’s president, Trump seems to have found a soul mate