When German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt flew to Jerusalem to cover the high-profile trial against Adolf Eichmann, she reflected that the criminal who had escaped capture for years and was standing trial for crimes against humanity wasn’t a monster.
He was an absolutely normal person who was really convinced he was “just doing his job”, she said.
Over 50 years later, and facing 5,230 counts of accessory to murder in Hamburg, former Nazi concentration camp guard Bruno Dey’s words aren’t that different from Eichmann’s.
Dey, now 93, was 17 when he joined Hitler’s SS-Totenkopfsturmbann, the Death’s Head Battalion. He was sent to man the watchtowers at the Stutthof concentration camp, in modern-day north-eastern Poland. There, he bore witness as tens of thousands of people – mainly Jews – died because of starvation, forced labour, illnesses and in the camp’s gas chambers.
Between the summer of 1944 and the spring of 1945, Dey climbed the watchtowers for guard duty. German State prosecutors say that, as an SS sharpshooter, he must have “knowingly assisted in the insidious and gruesome killing of mainly Jewish prisoners,” making him a “cog in the murderous machinery” who “carried out execution orders.”
The accusation of having been accessory to the murder of over 5000 people, then, doesn’t only include the thousands of prisoners who died of a typhus epidemic after being denied access to food, water and medication, but also 200 people who were killed in the gas chambers and 30 people who were executed while he was working in Stutthof.
Yet, as he faces trial for his crimes 74 years after the camp was liberated by the Soviet army, Dey told German newspaper Die Welt he does not believe he’s guilty of being an accessory to murder.
He heard the prisoners scream and he was aware of their assassination, he said in an interview. “I probably knew that these were Jews who hadn’t committed a crime, that they were only in here because they were Jews. They had a right to live and work freely like every other human being.”, he said. “But what use would it have been if I had left? They would have found someone else.” He also stated he wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser.
The last Nazi trials
Bruno Dey is not the only concentration camp personnel to have stood this kind of trial in recent years since a 2011 landmark sentence in Hamburg rules that “cogs in the machine” could be sentenced even when the prosecution could not link the accused to individual murders.
At the moment, the deputy director of the German Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes Thomas Will said that 23 cases against concentration camp personnel are currently ongoing.
Since very few of the people who were involved in Nazi Germany’s genocidal crimes are still alive and all of them are very old, prosecutors are racing against time to ensure that some justice is done by the victims, including the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Oskar Groening, the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, died in 2018 at 96 before his trial ever started. He had counted cash stolen from the prisoners sent to Nazi Germany’s most infamous death camp.