Eighty years ago, a young SS soldier began his duty at Sachsenhausen as a guard. This concentration camp is close to Berlin was built by Nazi leaders as a powerful symbol for their power.

Josef was his real name. He was the eighth child in a family of eight who were farmers and only went to school during winter months. He answered the call to German-speaking peoples in Europe to join the fascist cause.

On Thursday, I witnessed a frail, white-haired 100 year-old man sitting in a converted prison sports hall, facing charges of helping to kill 3,518 Nazis.

I observed the opening of a trial in Itzehoe, a town north of Hamburg, in which Irmgard Furchner, former secretary to the commandant at Stutthof concentration camp, was accused of complicity in 11,412 killings

I witnessed the opening of a trial at Itzehoe in north Hamburg in which Irmgard furchner, former secretary of the commandant at Stutthof concentration Camp, was accused of complicity with the 11,412 killings

Josef S – his full name is protected under German law – insists he is innocent, has never been to Sachsenhausen and did not speak ‘a word of German’ until 1947.

I watched as he complained about his trauma and how he was unable to sleep and eat well.

Then Heike Trautmann, a senior police officer, showed the court in Brandenburg records of Josef’s service before detailing how there were 38,110 fatalities during his 40 months at the camp.

‘They were gassed, shot or died as a result of malnutrition and poor hygiene,’ she said. She and a court official stretched out a list on which camp staff detailed daily killings of allied prisoners, political foes and ‘antisocials’ such as Jews, Roma and homosexuals. It measured 45ft in length.

It felt eerie to see hideously familiar black-and-white images on court screens of barbed wire, strutting guards and tormented captives in a Nazi camp – then to look at the old man in a striped pullover listening through headphones to claims that he was a crucial cog in the Third Reich’s machinery of slaughter.

She started work at 18 at the Baltic coast camp near Gdansk, Poland. She is now 96 ¿ yet the case is being heard under juvenile court rules due to her age at the time

She started working at the Baltic Coast Camp near Gdansk in Poland when she was 18. She is now 96 – yet the case is being heard under juvenile court rules due to her age at the time

Josef’s case is among a spate of German prosecutions against elderly people suddenly accused of involvement in some of the most appalling crimes against humanity.

They raise profound questions about justice – principally, should such old people, comparatively minor participants, be in court so long after mass murder?

They also highlight concerns with Germany’s historic approach to citizens engaged in Nazi atrocities and come when there has been a disturbing rise in antisemitism in the country, lies being spread online and the far-Right Alternative For Germany party winning ten per cent of votes last month.

There have been four similar high-profile trials in the past five years, with 15 more cases under investigation – including another Sachsenhausen guard.

‘Those being prosecuted today had the bad luck to live a long life,’ admitted Efraim Zuroff, who leads the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s efforts to hunt down Nazi war criminals. ‘But they were participators and deserve to be put on trial.

‘These people often look frail or ill – but they were young and fit when they first put on the uniform and took part in horror.’

Two days earlier, I witnessed the opening of a trial at Itzehoe in which Irmgard furchner, former secretary of the commandant at Stutthof concentration camps, was accused of complicity with the 11,412 murders.

At 18 she began work at the Baltic Coast Camp near Gdansk in Poland. She is now 96 – yet the case is being heard under juvenile court rules due to her age at the time.

She was wheeled into the court using a wheelchair. While the press photographers were allowed to take photographs, she was covered by a silk scarf and sunglasses.

The first woman to face trial for charges related to the Third Reich over the decades brushed her white hair and surveyed the room as the prosecution presented its case.

The trial was the culmination of a five-year investigation that involved historians and police. Approximately 65,000 people died at Stutthof. Many more were sent to extermination camps like Auschwitz.

Evidence includes deportation orders signed with her maiden name and the death warrants she wrote. Furchner, who spent two year at Stutthof has said that she will not testify. She fiddled occasionally with an electronic tag on her wrist – fitted after she tried to avoid the proceedings by fleeing her nursing home into Hamburg last month.

‘I want to spare myself these embarrassments and don’t want to make myself the laughing stock of humanity,’ she told the judge in a letter, warning that she would not appear due to her ‘advanced age and physical impediments’.

Perhaps some people might feel some sympathy for the old woman, who was born under the Nazi regime and later joined their side in a role as a teenage secretarial.

Asia Shindelman is not one of them. She was 15 – three years younger than Furchner – when she was taken to Stutthof in a crammed cattle truck with her family from Lithuania. Her grandmother was one of the victims in the gas chamber.

‘The concentration camp was hell,’ she told me. ‘They shot all the children, but my mother lied that I was older. They looked at me and said OK, let her live to die of slave labour, of starvation, of epidemics, of cold.’

She recalled the cruelty of those in charge: stripping them of possessions, forcing them to kneel without food or drink all day, throwing people on electric fences and feeding human beings ‘like meat’ to dogs. ‘I had to watch this, of course,’ she said.

The trial follows a five-year investigation by police working with historians. About 65,000 died at Stutthof, with many more dispatched to extermination camps such as Auschwitz

The trial is the culmination of a five-year investigation that police conducted with historians. Approximately 65,000 people were killed at Stutthof. Many others were sent to extermination centers like Auschwitz.

Shindelman, forced to build military fortifications in freezing weather and endure a ‘death march’ into Germany after Russian troops advanced, says it was ‘a miracle’ that she was among the four per cent of Lithuanian Jews to survive the Holocaust.

She weighed less then six stone when she was rescued from the sea in 1945. She spent five years in hospital with severe typhus, and her legs were so damaged that doctors considered amputation.

Furchner’s case now has her as a witness.

‘It’s not possible for someone to say they did not know what was going on all around them,’ she told me.

‘We did not look like people – we looked like skeletons.’

Germany is rightly proud to face up to its Nazi past with education and memorials.

Yet many perpetrators of mass murder escaped justice – or were given light sentences if prosecuted – as the nation sought to move on from its dark past.

It is thought about 300,000 people were actively engaged in the Holocaust but only 6,700 were found guilty and sentenced – including just 50 of the 6,500 men and women who worked in Auschwitz, most infamous of the death camps.

According to one human rights lawyer, any attempt to bring all those involved to trial would have brought the government bureaucracy to its knees, and snarled courts for years, given the number of Nazi abuses.

As I sat there in these courts, my ambivalence over such trials subsided. I did not feel the pity for an old woman or an even older man. As I thought about the inhumane acts of ordinary people, I felt a strong desire to do justice.

The German journalist who was sitting next to me felt exactly the same. ‘I was not very sure about these cases going after old people so long after the events – but being here I think it is right,’ said Johannes Kulms, 35, a radio reporter.

‘When you look at her, she is so ordinary. The top people are mainly very average too, even when you look at them. So this case reminds us of these things.’

Yet guilt was placed firmly on the shoulders of ‘monsters’ in charge with minimal effort to examine the savage machinery of slaughter, despite mounting historical evidence that many ordinary people knew what was taking place under the Nazis. 

As the years passed, prosecution became more difficult because of the German statute of limitations for murder. This exemption relied on proof that the victim was involved in a specific death. It was almost impossible to prove in cases of collective crimes against humanity.

John Demjanjuk, a former Sobibor Guard, was convicted and sentenced to life in 2011. Prosecutors proved that serving in this role at a camp for the sole purpose extermination was enough to make him an accessory to murder.

Lawrence Douglas, a US law professor who is an expert on such cases, stated that there were only 125 survivors of 1.5 million people who were sent to Sobibor and two other key death camp camps. The trial proved that their deaths were the result of involvement in an extermination process and not personal evil.

‘It was impossible not to be part of the killing,’ he said.

‘Participation in the killing process was almost part of the job description. These people were not brainwashed and there is no denying their ability to recognise the stench of mass murder.’

But he is not happy about the latest cases. ‘Josef S was exceptionally young but at least he was a guard. However, I can’t imagine an 18-year-old secretary turning to the commandant and questioning if he really wants to send people to Auschwitz.’

Others disagree on the culpability of others, such as Rachel Century (head of research at Holocaust Memorial Day Trust), who spoke with many former officials while researching the role of female administrators under the Nazi regime.

‘These women knew something bad was happening. Keep in mind that ordinary Germans knew what was happening since Jews were disappearing, and their properties were being sold.

‘The secretaries in camps were typing deportation lists, writing reports on camp conditions, seeing death certificates.

‘We cannot judge what led Irmgard Furchner to her situation, but the Nazi regime needed these cogs to function, and if enough women had said no there is a chance the machine might have jammed.’ 

Century claimed that there was no evidence of harm to people who quit key jobs despite threats made by Adolf Eichmann – a key instigator in the Final Solution – that they would end their lives in death camps.

Furchner’s lawyer, Wolfgang Molkentin, told me her client had already been questioned four times as a witness in earlier war crime cases so she was surprised now to be charged herself in her dotage. ‘Why did they not prosecute all those years ago?’ he said.

Her defense is that her role as a secretariat does not fulfill the legal requirements to be considered an accessory to killing. Molkentin said he supported such proceedings. ‘Better late than never,’ he said. ‘But as a defence attorney, I must make a reasonable case. Nothing else would be morally acceptable.’

The right of a fair trial is, naturally, one of the pillars to freedom that distinguishes democracy from dictatorships such as the Third Reich.

Bruno Dey (93-year-old ex-guard at Stutthof) was sentenced last year to a two year suspended sentence for complicity with the killing of more that 5,000 prisoners.

The judges had concluded by asking what makes human beings commit such atrocities – indifference, lack of conscience, sense of duty or desire to follow orders. ‘We can only learn for the future by finding answers to these questions.’

Molkentin has made it clear that Furchner – who has widely been called the ‘Secretary of Evil’ – has ‘no sympathy’ with far-Right efforts to hail her as a heroic figure and she does not deny the Holocaust.

The presence of a neo Nazi in public space during her trial, wearing a tracksuit shirt in Nazi colours of red, white and black, highlights why families of death camp victims believe such trials are important beyond justice, punishment, and the need for victims and their stories to be told in court.

Mehmet Gürcan Daimagüler, representing the families, said: ‘These trials are important, not just for my clients but for our society.

‘We live in times when anti-semitism is rising, when people deny and make jokes about the Holocaust, when we have Nazis in our parliament again. This is a reminder of the foundation of our modern nation, rooted in saying “never again” to the Holocaust.’

And as fellow lawyer Christoph Rückel told me, such cases serve also as a sharp warning to every fanatic or fool thinking of joining a murderous cause that they will never be safe from the reach of justice however long they might live.

We must hope he is right – and that the lessons from these extraordinary cases, just as with the Nazi shadow from history, stretch far beyond the borders of Germany.