Oskar Gröning, 93, is standing trial in Germany for complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944. Having volunteered to join the SS, the military wing of the Nazi Party, in 1940, Gröning — known by his deceptively anodyne nickname, the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz” — left his banking job and was assigned to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death machine two years later. From 1942 to the end of 1944, one in six Jews murdered in the Holocaust died at Auschwitz. Gröning, like his Nazi co-conspirators, personified the genocidal answer to the Jewish question — “The Final Solution” that sought to annihilate the whole of European Jewry. Tragically, men like Gröning were exemplars of what author Daniel Goldhagen called “Hitler’s willing executioners.”
I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I was on the ramp when the selections [for the gas chambers] took place. … I would like you to believe these atrocities happened – because I was there.
According to his accusers, including 55 survivors and victims’ relatives, — Gröning was more than merely a confiscator of prisoners’ banknotes. He stood by with bureaucratic detachment (don’t they always?) as cattle cars arrived on train platforms containing overflowing numbers of prisoners to be separated into groups — either for hard labor or to be gassed to death by Zyklon-B.
In 2011, the conviction in Germany of Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, who had served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, gave courts a wider latitude in ascertaining the guilt of those who were in any way an accessory to Nazi war crimes. This represented a departure from historical practice that traditionally limited convictions to the senior Nazi leadership. Prior to Demjanjuk’s conviction, German prosecutors essentially had to prove that a suspect had perpetrated specific crimes at a certain time and date, a much higher burden of proof that proved frustrating and elusive. As Efraim Zuroff, longtime Nazi hunter for The Simon Wiesenthal Center remarked, Demjanjuk’s conviction
…was a game-changer because it allows for the prosecution of people who would otherwise not have been prosecuted.
Since the end of World War II, Germany has been a prototype of catharsis and atonement. At least in principle, the country has sworn off any allegiance to its shameful past, even adopting the slogan “Never again,” as its cri de coeur. While post-war Germany has hardly been a redoubt of Third Reich sympathies, the nation’s attempts at moral culpability through the courts have been ethically challenged at best. The belated trial of a nonagenarian ex-Nazi is nothing, if not proof of such moral lapses.
Among other things, Gröning recently told the court of his enthusiasm for Hitler’s assault on Germany’s post-World War I hyperinflation and staggering unemployment. The reason he left his day job to join the SS was because he found it “dashing” and “zestful.”
But in 2015, Gröning now admits to “moral guilt”:
It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz … Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.
Such clinical recollections recall certain Nazis of long ago. He explains the operations of Auschwitz with the same obtuse indifference as Adolf Eichmann, who masterminded the mass deportation of Jews to the death camps, was captured by the Israeli Mossad in Argentina in 1960, and was sentenced to death and executed in Israel two years later. Embodying what political philosopher Hannah Arendt aptly termed “the banality of evil,” Gröning describes the extermination of Hungarian Jews as “routine.” Per the New York Times:
What shocked him were merely individual outbursts of violence, like an SS man beating a crying infant to death. The killings in the gas chambers, he said, were ‘orderly’ and ‘clean.’ He rarely said the word ‘murder.’ ‘In 24 hours you could take care of 5,000 people,’ he said. ‘After all, that’s how things went in a concentration camp.’
While Arendt’s watershed book Eichmann in Jerusalem remains as incisive as it is controversial, Gröning’s actions are no doubt an accurate, albeit harrowing, portrait of “the banality of evil.” But much like the case of Demjanjuk’s trial and conviction, Gröning’s trial has a larger and more significant role than simply bringing another erstwhile Nazi to justice: he’s on the stand simply for being there, for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, for not resisting. Yet we also know that the history of Nazism on trial has often proven a herculean task, with such efforts facing a conspiratorial blend of nationalistic pride and cunning legal stratagems. This past January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In view of this milestone, Groning’s trial isn’t just significant as history. It’s an attempt to rectify a contemptible historical legacy in which ex-Nazis were largely protected instead of prosecuted.
As historian Rebecca Wittmann cogently argues in her book Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial, about the 1963-65 criminal trials of 22 former mid- and low-level officials for their role in the Holocaust, Germany was, in fact, incapable and unwilling to meaningfully prosecute its own genocidal past. (Among German legal types, the conventional wisdom also holds that the 1945-46 Nuremberg Trials were insufficient in their methods of prosecution.) Far from prosecuting Auschwitz writ large, the 22 defendants were judged as if Auschwitz was little more than a criminal operation; testimony about the rules and procedures within the camp obscured the more gruesome gestalt of the Nazi death apparatus:
…the West German penal code was not equipped to ‘teach lessons’ about how to prevent or punish genocide … the main impediment to effective justice in Nazi trials was the law, and its contemporary interpretation in Nazi trials.
Of the 6,500 SS members who worked at Auschwitz and survived the war, only 49 were convicted in German courts. Shortly after the Demjanjuk verdict, Kurt Schrimm, the top German official for the investigation of Nazi crimes, announced that his agency would prosecute at least 50 former Auschwitz guards. By 2013, Schrimm’s office reported that nine of the 50 guards were dead and others could no longer be located. Demjanjuk died in an old age home near Munich while waiting on his case’s appeal.
Gröning may well be one of the last former Nazis to stand trial for Holocaust crimes, which only underscores his case’s importance. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison. But his conviction would come not a moment to soon, for those like Hedy Bohm, an 86-year-old Shoah survivor who traveled to Germany from her home in Toronto to testify against Gröning. She arrived at Auschwitz, just 16, in 1944, where her parents were ripped away from her. Her father was sent away with the men, while she and her mother were headed for the gas chambers:
I cried after her, she heard me and we looked at each other… She didn’t say anything and then turned and kept walking. I never saw her again.
For 70 years, Bohm could not revisit such soul-burning memories, but the Gröning case has changed all that. As she told one Canadian news organization:
It hurt to know that those people who did all these terrible things managed to escape and have a good life.
The concept of justice is not merely unsatisfactory, but perhaps illusory when it comes to the Holocaust. If the Gröning trial is essential, paradoxically, it is ineffectual — in the existential sense. There are no rational antidotes, notwithstanding the human need for closure, to the irrationality of injustice. As William Faulkner wistfully wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”