The conviction of 94-year-old Oskar Groening, the so-called “Auscwitz bookkeper,” by a German court this week and his sentencing to four years in prison sent an important, if belated, message to the German public and the entire world.
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“You can certainly tell yourself that you only dealt with suitcases," presiding judge Franz Kompisch of the state court in Lueneburg, northern Germany, told the defendant. "But you saw what happened there and your actions assisted."
Kompisch mentioned in his ruling that Groening was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, even though he never actually participated in the murders themselves. As a bookkeeper, he “only” collected and recorded the property and money stolen from the Jews, sending the valuables to Berlin. That was enough for the court to convict Groening as an accessory to the murder of those who were killed in the concentration camp during the period he served there as an officer in the SS.
The judge relied on a precedent set in the case of John Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was convicted in Germany for his part in mass murder at the Sobibor death camp during the time he served there as a guard, even though he did not participate in the killings himself.
Demjanjuk died before his appeal was heard and before he served his sentence, but his trial allowed German prosecutors to reopen the cases of dozens of guards and others with junior roles at the extermination camps, who after the war lived ordinary and quiet lives.
In his ruling this week, the judge dwelled at length on Groening’s life and service in Auschwitz, in order to provide a factual basis for his ruling that Groening had acted of his own free will and was not “lured” into joining the Nazi party, as the defense claimed, because of his conservative family background.
“It was his decision. We saw your responses here, you are an educated person,” the judge said, as he described how Groening volunteered for the SS and was assigned to Auschwitz, where he decided to remain, despite the horrible crimes he witnessed there.
The judge also said that Groening could have asked to serve at the front, far from the concentration camps, had he wanted to. But he preferred to remain at Aschwitz, due to the potential danger of going to the front. It was his own choice. “I do not want to call you a coward, Mr. Groening, but you chose the easy way, and remained in your ‘office work,’” the judge said.
The trial, which is likely to be the last of its kind to be held in Germany, also raised difficult moral questions. About 70 Holocaust survivors joined the prosecution, attended the trial – and confronted Groening. For some, the four-year sentence for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people was not enough. Others disagreed, attributing little importance to the sentence itself, which in any case will be conditional on medical examinations to determine whether Groening is fit to serve out his sentence at his advanced age. The fact that Holocaust survivors were given an opportunity to tell their stories was more important for them than the question of whether another elderly Nazi goes to jail.
The verdict also reminded the German public and the entire world of the weakness of the German legal system, which for decades avoided investigating, putting on trial or punishing people such as Groening. There were a lot of reasons for that, including the fact that many prosecutors and judges in West Germany after World War II were themselves former Nazis. Others supported the Nazi regime even without joining the party.
Groening and other SS members continued to live ordinary lives after the war and most died of old age, without ever being punished. Figures released in Germany last week show that out of some 7,000 SS members who served at Auschwitz, only 100 were put on trial and, of those, only 50 were convicted. Groening, it seems, will be the last of them.
Leon Schwarzbaum, who at 94 is the same age as Groening, came to court to hear the verdict last week. Schwarzbaum, a survivor of Auschwitz, now lives in Berlin. “I was in Auschwitz for two years. It was important for me. My whole family was killed. It was 30 people, and this is the last trial of an SS man who was in Auschwitz,” he told Deutsche Welle.