Though he is not accused of any specific killing, Bruno Dey is charged as an accessory to those committed at Stutthof from August 1944 to April 1945 when he served as a guard there, because he helped prevent prisoners from escaping, according to the charges filed by Hamburg prosecutors.
"Surveillance was necessary for the concentration camp to function, and the camp was made to kill people," Hamburg state court spokesman Kai Wantzen said of the prosecution's argument. When he was charged in April, prosecutors called him "a small wheel in the machinery of murder."
Dey's attorney did not immediately return calls to his office. Wantzen said the suspect did not deny to authorities that he had served in Stutthof and said he was aware people were being killed. More than 60,000 people were killed at the Nazi German camp built east of Danzig, which today is the Polish city of Gdansk, including Jews, political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Polish civilians and resistance fighters after the brutal suppression of the 1944 Warsaw uprising.
Prisoners were killed by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure, or put to death in a gas chamber.
Dey is accused of serving as a guard from August 1944 to April 1945, when he was 17 and 18. Because of his age at the time of the alleged crimes, he will be tried in juvenile court and faces a possible six months to 10 years in prison if convicted. In Germany there are no consecutive sentences.
German authorities have been pursuing cases against former camp guards and others suspected of Nazi-era war crimes more vigorously in recent years, but have been finding prosecutions increasingly difficult due to the defendants' age. At 92, Dey is one of the younger suspects to be brought to trial.
Another former Stutthof guard, Johann Rehbogen, went on trial in November in Muenster at age 94 but the proceedings collapsed within weeks after the defendant was hospitalized for heart and kidney issues.
Following that, a Frankfurt court refused to put a former Majdanek death camp guard on trial after ruling the 97-year-old was too sick to face court proceedings. Dey, who had been expected to testify in the Rehbogen trial before the proceedings fell apart, has been deemed fit to stand trial by experts but sessions will be limited to two hours a day, and are scheduled to be held only twice a week, Wantzen said.
Stutthof survivors and relatives are expected to join the Dey trial as co-plaintiffs, as allowed under German law. The recent prosecutions all rely on new German legal reasoning that being a camp guard is itself enough to be found guilty of accessory to murder, even without specific evidence of a crime. The argument was first used successfully against former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk in 2011.
Before that, prosecutors would have to provide evidence a specific guard was involved in a specific killing — often a next-to impossible task given the circumstances of the crimes committed in concentration camps and death camps and the scarcity of surviving witnesses.
Demjanjuk was convicted on allegations he served as a Sobibor death camp guard but always denied the accusations and died before his appeal could be heard. The 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening using the same argument, however, was upheld by a federal court, solidifying the precedent.
The Rehbogen trial was the first use of the reasoning to charge and try a concentration camp guard instead of a death camp guard. But prosecutors have expressed confidence it can be applied, since tens of thousands of people were killed in Stutthof, even though the camp's sole purpose was not murder — unlike that of death camps such Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek or Sobibor.