A 93-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard was handed a suspended sentence of two years on Thursday for complicity in World War II atrocities, in what could be one of the last such cases against surviving SS guards.
Bruno Dey was convicted for his role in the murder of 5,232 people when he was a teenage SS tower guard at the Stutthof camp near what was Danzig, now Gdansk, in then Nazi-occupied Poland.
Judge Anne Meier-Goering said Dey had helped to "dehumanise human beings and turn them into numbers".
"You still see yourself as a mere observer, when in fact you were an accomplice to this man-made hell," she told him as she handed down the sentence, also for one case of attempted murder.
In his last statements to the court, Dey had apologised to victims but stressed that he had been forced into his role at the camp.
"Today I would like to apologise to those who went through the hell of this madness, as well as to their relatives. Something like this must never happen again," he said from the dock.
Dey said he was "shaken" by witness accounts from Stutthof, where tens of thousands of people died from illness, malnutrition and murder by gas chamber and surprise execution.
But he added that he became aware of the "extent of the atrocities" only upon hearing witness testimonies and reports.
Judge Meier-Goering, however, said the court was "convinced" that Dey would have known about the brutality of the camp.
"There were corpses everywhere," she said, adding that the extermination camps could not have functioned without people like Dey.
"You should never have followed the criminal orders," she told him.
- 'No real emotion' -
Dey was given a juvenile sentence because he was 17 and 18 years old when he served at the camp between April 1944 and April 1945.
Stefan Waterkamp, his lawyer, had argued that such a young man could hardly have been expected to break ranks, and that the teenage Dey "saw no escape".
Judge Meier-Goering said that Dey's youth at the time was a "mitigating factor" in the sentence, but that it did not excuse him.
Like millions of other Germans at the time, Dey had failed to "strain his conscience", she said.
She said the sentence should be seen as a call to "respect human dignity at all costs, even if the cost is your own safety".
Dey had thought only of his own safety, and not made any efforts to escape service, she added.
Meier-Goering also noted that he had not shown "any real emotion" in his apology and his statements before the court.
One Stutthof survivor dismissed Dey's apology.
"I'm speechless. I don't want his apology, I don't need it," Marek Dunin-Wasowicz, a 93-year-old camp survivor, told AFP by telephone from his home in Warsaw.
Christoph Rueckel, a lawyer representing five of the co-plaintiffs in Hamburg, welcomed the conviction as an "important signal".
Yet he also criticised the decision to impose only a suspended sentence, saying it could lead the public to believe that the crimes at Stutthof were less serious than they were.
- 65,000 deaths -
Set up by the Nazis in 1939 to detain Polish political prisoners, Stutthof camp ended up holding 110,000 inmates, including many Jews.
Some 65,000 people perished in the camp, around 4,000 of them murdered in the gas chambers.
Dey, who now lives in Hamburg, became a baker after the war. He later married and had two daughters.
He came into prosecutors' sights after a landmark 2011 ruling against former Sobibor camp guard John Demjanjuk on the basis that he was part of the Nazi killing machine.
Since then, Germany has been racing to use that legal precedent against surviving SS personnel rather than trying to find evidence that they directly committed murders or atrocities.
Courts have since convicted Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at the same camp, for complicity in mass murder.
Both men were found guilty at the age of 94 but died before they could be imprisoned.