Reinhold Hanning
Defendant Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former guard at Auschwitz death camp, is brought to courtroom in DetmoldReuters

A 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard has apologised for failing to act as thousands were killed before his eyes at the Nazi death camp, telling a German court he was ashamed of his past. Reinhold Hanning appeared before the Detmold state court, in the north west of the country, where he is on trial in relation to the deaths of some 170,000 people.

"I want to say that it disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization," the former SS sergeant told the court sitting on a wheelchair before a number of Holocaust survivors. "I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologize for my actions. I am very, very sorry."

Hanning said he had never spoken of his time at the camp where an estimated 1.1 million prisoners, most of them Jewish, where killed between 1940 and 1945. "I've tried my whole life to forget about this time," he said. "Auschwitz was a nightmare."

He said he had no idea how Auschwitz worked as he arrived there aged 20 in January 1942, after being deemed unfit for combat duties following a grenade injury he suffered a year earlier during fighting in Kiev. His initial task was to register ins and outs at the camp's front gate, far from the gas chambers. Nevertheless he soon learned the ugly truth.

"Nobody talked to us about it in the first days there, but if someone, like me, was there for a long time then one learned what was going on," he said. "People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out. I could smell the burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned."

Later in his service at the camp he manned a guard tower with orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape. He eventually left after two and a half years of service in June 1944. He is facing up to 15 years in jail on 170,000 counts of being an accessory to murder as prosecutor argue that as a camp guard he should be held responsible for murders committed at Auschwitz even without evidence that he was directly involved in any killing.

Survivors welcomed the apology but added they hoped Hanning would become more vocal in denouncing the Holocaust to fight Holocaust denial. "I am not angry, I don't want him to go to prison but he should say more for the sake of the young generation today because the historical truth is important," 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum said.

In July last year another former Auschwitz guard, Oskar Groening, was sentenced to four years in jail in a similar trial.