The former SS Sturmmann, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army rank of specialist, is accused of working as a guard in the camp, east of Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk, from June 1942 to about the beginning of September 1944.
Though there is no specific evidence linking him to a specific crime at the camp, more than 60,000 people were killed in Stutthof and prosecutors argue that as a guard, he was an accessory to at least hundreds of the deaths.
Stutthof prisoners were killed in a gas chamber, with deadly injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot, starved and even forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure.
"As a guard he was necessarily informed about these killings," Brendel said. "And it is our contention that the camp was not so large that he couldn't look around from a watch tower and see clearly what was happening there."
The suspect admits serving at Stutthof, but told investigators he was unaware of the killings and did not participate, Brendel said. Prosecutors argue that participating in the Nazi machinery of destruction is itself enough to be found guilty of accessory to murder.
The legal reasoning was first used successfully against former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk in 2011. Demjanjuk was convicted in Munich on allegations he served as a Sobibor death camp guard, which he denied. He died before his appeal could be heard.
The 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening using the same argument, however, was upheld the following year by Germany's top criminal court on appeal, cementing the precedent. The Stutthof case is the first time a prosecution is going to trial using this line of reasoning for a concentration camp guard instead of a death camp guard. Brendel said the evidence had parallels, however, to the case against Groening who primarily served outside the part of Auschwitz where the mass killings took place.
"In a death camp like Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, proving the main crime (of murder) is somewhat easier than in a concentration camp, but a lot of killings also occurred in concentration camps," he said.
The expansion of the precedent is only one factor that makes the trial, opening Nov. 6 in Muenster, significant, according to Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "The other point is that Stutthof is not a very well-known camp but tens of thousands of people died there," he said.
"It's very important not only for the survivors, for whom this is a small degree of closure at the end of their lives, but for their descendants and relatives." Stutthof was established in 1939 and underwent several iterations, initially being used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from the nearby city of Danzig on the Baltic Sea coast.
From about 1940 onward it was used as a so-called "work education camp" where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens who had run afoul of their Nazi oppressors, were sent to serve sentences and often died. Others incarcerated there included career criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses.
From mid-1944, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, which was overflowing, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.
Survivors of the camp will be called as witnesses at the trial and have also joined as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law, Brendel said. None remember the suspect specifically, but will testify in general about the operation of the camp.
Family members of prisoners killed in Stutthof will also join as co-plaintiffs. The Wiesenthal Center located 17 Stutthof survivors for the case — 15 living in Israel, one in the U.S. and one in Sweden, Zuroff said.
"One woman said she remembered the guards as being incredibly cruel, even worse than Auschwitz," Zuroff said. The suspect is one of two former Stutthof guards under investigation by the Dortmund prosecutors' office. The second is alleged to have served there from June 1944 to May 1945.
Though their times overlap, the two cases have been separated because there are lingering questions about whether the health of the second suspect is good enough for him to stand trial, Brendel said.