A 96-year-old woman who worked as a secretary for a Nazi concentration camp commandant is to face trial in northern Germany on Thursday on charges of aiding and abetting the murder of thousands of prisoners.
Irmgard Furchner, who was just 18 when she started work at Stutthof camp on the Baltic coast in Nazi-occupied Poland, is the first woman to stand trial in decades over crimes connected to the Third Reich.
Due to her age at the time of the alleged crimes, when she was known by her maiden name, Irmgard Dirksen, Furchner will be tried in the juvenile chamber of Itzehoe district court, close to Quickborn, north of Hamburg, where she lives in a care home.
Holocaust survivors, some of whom were imprisoned at the camp that was close to the port city of Gdansk, are due to appear at the trial and to give evidence about their experiences.
Furchner is charged with aiding and abetting murder in 11,412 cases, as well as complicity in 18 cases of attempted murder.
The prosecution case against her is being brought as a result of the trial of John Demjanjuk, a former camp guard at Sobibor concentration camp, who in 2011 was sentenced to aiding and abetting the murders of 28,000 people, setting a new legal precedent. The judge at the time said regardless of how small a person’s role had been, as long as it could be proved they had been “cogs” in the “machinery of destruction”, they could be held responsible for the crimes committed there.
The ruling opened the door to more prosecutions.
In 2016, 94-year-old Oskar Gröning, who worked as a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, was sentenced to four years in prison for his participation in the systematic mass murder of thousands at the camp. The same year, Reinhold Hanning, 94, a guard at Auschwitz, was given a five-year prison term for his involvement. Demjanjuk, Gröning and Hanning all died before having to serve their sentences, as they waited for the outcome of their appeals.
Another former Stutthof guard, Bruno Dey, was sentenced to two years on probation by a juvenile court in July 2020 but did not appeal. He accepted his guilt and expressed remorse. He is still alive.
Prosecutors in Furchner’s trial will have to prove whether and to what extent the first secretary to the camp commandant Paul Werner Hoppe, a major in the SS, the main paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler, contributed to the mass murders which took place there.
In their charge sheet, prosecutors state that Furchner, between June 1943 and April 1945, “assisted those responsible at the camp in the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war, in her role as a stenographer and secretary to the camp commander”.
The defence will seek to argue that as someone who was restricted to a desk, tasked with reading, sorting and writing letters and telegrams on Hoppe’s behalf, as well as sending radio transmissions, but who is never known to have physically harmed those in the camp, Furchner cannot be held responsible for the murder of thousands of prisoners.
The prosecution is expected to use as evidence some of the papers, including reports of deportation orders for Auschwitz concentration camp that she compiled, and signed with “Di”, the first two letters of her maiden name.
As camp commandant, Hoppe’s tasks included carrying out execution orders, compiling deportation lists for Auschwitz, and giving orders for mass murder by poison gas at the gas chamber at Stutthof.
Stutthof, 37km (23 miles) east of Gdansk, was established by the Nazis in 1939 as a prison camp for civilians. It was later transformed into a concentration camp. More than 100,000 Jews and political prisoners from 28 nations were held there, 65,000 of whom were murdered.
Furchner has been called as a witness in previous trials linked to Stutthof, including that of her former boss, Hoppe, and other SS leaders at the camp, on three occasions from 1954 to 1982. On each occasion she insisted she knew nothing about the murders which took place there and had no contact with prisoners.
In 1954, she married Heinz Furchtsam, a senior SS sergeant she had met in the camp who was 19 years her senior. He changed his name – from Furchsam, which means “timid” – to Furchner, after the war. They lived in Schleswig, northern Germany, and she spent her working life in an administrative role. He died in 1972.
The prosecution has based the facts of its case largely on the work of historians, including that of Stefan Hördler – an expert for the structures of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany, and the SS – who has specifically focused on the role of functionaries of every rank and level in concentration camps.
Wolf Molkentin, who is defending Furchner, told Der Spiegel that he wanted to ensure the trial offered a “dignified treatment of victims and their families”, especially those for whom the trial will be an opportunity, he said, to “describe their stories of persecution and to bear witness”.
He has said it is not clear whether Furchner knew or understood what was happening to the prisoners and there is a lack of “concrete” evidence that she aided and abetted murder.
Furchner has been declared fit to stand trial after initial medical reports said a heart condition prevented her from doing so. She has not yet formally responded to the charge, according to Molkentin.
Hers is one of ten similar cases being dealt with by German prosecutors of people allegedly involved in the administration or the guarding of prisons who now face trials for aiding and abetting murder. The institution responsible for investigating Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg, is looking into seven further cases.
A week after the start of Furchner’s trial, which is expected to be held over several months, a 100-year-old former camp guard from Stutthof is due to go on trial in Neuruppin in Brandenburg.
Legal and history experts dealing with the Nazi era have described the court cases as largely symbolic, making up for decades in which the justice system failed to pursue many far more important figures involved in the Nazi regime. Owing to the advanced age of those on trial, none of them is likely to end up in prison.