BERLIN — A German court convicted a 93-year-old man on Thursday for helping the Nazis murder thousands of people while he served as a concentration camp guard more than 75 years ago, in what might be one of the last verdicts to be handed down to a living participant in the Holocaust.
The Hamburg state court found Bruno Dey guilty of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder — one for each person believed to have been killed in the Stutthof concentration camp, east of Gdansk in Poland, during the time he served as a guard there, from August 1944 to April 1945.
Mr. Dey, who was tried in juvenile court because he was only 17 years old at the time, was given a two-year suspended sentence, reflecting the prosecutors’ acknowledgment of his contrition and willingness to cooperate with authorities.
But survivors and those representing them criticized the sentence as too lenient.
“It is unsatisfactory and much too late,” said Christoph Heubner of the International Auschwitz Committee, who followed the trial. “What is so upsetting for survivors is that this defendant failed to use the many postwar years of his life to reflect on what he saw and heard.”
The trial against Mr. Dey was the latest in a push by prosecutors in the special office for handling Nazi-era crimes to bring aging suspects to justice before it is too late. And it came at a moment when the country is struggling to deal with a resurgence in right-wing extremism.
Mr. Dey appeared at the Hamburg state court, seated in a wheelchair and wearing a blue surgical mask because of the coronavirus outbreak. He cast his eyes downward as the judge read his sentence, according to German public media.
“You still see yourself as a mere observer, when in fact you were an accomplice to this man-made hell,” presiding judge Anne Meier-Goering told the defendant while reading the verdict. “You did not follow an order to carry out a crime and should not have inferred this.”
In a closing statement, Mr. Dey said he felt it was important to express his thoughts and feelings about what he had learned during the trial, but also argued that he had been forced to serve as a concentration camp SS guard and was ordered into the position.
“The witness testimony and the expert assessments made me realize the full scope of the horrors and suffering,” he told the court. “Today I would like to apologize for those who went through the hell of this insanity. Something like this must never happen again.”
The German authorities have intensified their efforts in recent years to hold to account men and women, most of them now over 90, who played smaller roles in helping the Nazis round up and murder Europe’s Jews in their network of concentration and death camps.
Throughout the Cold War, these people were overlooked by a justice system that demanded evidence of direct involvement of a Nazi-era crime in order to bring charges against a perpetrator.
As the survivors grew older a reunited Germany began emphasizing the importance of remembrance and atonement, giving a prominent place to a Holocaust memorial in the heart of its new capital and establishing funds worth millions to compensate long overlooked victims of Nazi crimes.
Over the past decades, the courts, too, have shifted their perspective, following landmark rulings in 2011 and 2015 that established that individuals who played supporting roles in Nazi crimes could be convicted on the argument of association.
Last week, another former guard from Stutthof, age 95, was charged with similar crimes.
Because Mr. Dey was only 17 when he began his guard duties, he was tried as a juvenile. Prosecutors had sought a three-year prison sentence for his role at the camp, where he was tasked with making sure that none of the inmates, mostly Polish Jews and political prisoners, escaped.
More than 60,000 people — roughly half of whom were Jews — are believed to have died or been killed at the camp, which was the first to be established by the Nazi regime outside of Germany’s borders. Located in the small Polish town of Sztutowo, it served as a prison camp after the invasion of Poland in 1939. Gas chambers were put into use in 1944, and the camp was one of the last to be liberated.
More than three dozen survivors testified in the trial, which began in October. They told the court of seeing relatives die in the electric fences that surrounded the Stutthof camp, collecting the bones of other victims and being chased from their barracks, naked in subzero temperatures.
Mr. Dey acknowledged hearing screams from the camp’s gas chambers and watching as corpses were taken to be burned. But he said he never fired his weapon and that the “images of misery and horror have haunted me my entire life.”
For Mr. Heubner, of the International Auschwitz Committee, who volunteered at Stutthof during the 1970s and attended several sessions of Mr. Dey’s trial as an observer, the statement rang hollow.
“The image of him sitting above the camp in his tower is reflective of the view he had of himself as above those who were suffering,” he said. “And although he had decades to confront the horrors of what he witnessed, he remained silent.”
Stefan Waterkamp, Mr. Dey’s attorney, argued for his client to be acquitted. He said Mr. Dey did not become a guard by choice and that trying to flee or resist duty would have put him in danger.
“How could an 18-year-old step out of line in a situation like this?” Mr. Waterkamp said as part of his closing argument.
Judge Meier-Goering said the lesson of the trial must be to “honor human dignity at all costs — even when the price is your own safety.”
Germany continues to struggle with this maxim, as far-right activity has surged in the country in the past year. Earlier this week, a different German court opened a trial against a 28-year-old German suspected of plotting to blast his way into a synagogue filled with Jews observing Yom Kippur an attack that failed but left two people dead and injured several others.
The attack was the most severe of thousands of crimes committed against Jews in Germany in 2019 — the worst year since the country started tracking them in 2001.
Prosecutors said the defendant in that trial, Stephan Balliet, had been motivated by a belief that “the root of all these problems is the Jew.”