It’s been 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, and the anniversary may mark the last of the war-crimes trials from World War II. A German court will try the man dubbed “the accountant of Auschwitz,” Oskar Groening, who claims to be “morally guilty” but not legally liable for the genocide conducted by his fellow SS operatives. All he did was take the money from incoming victims before their extermination, but German prosecutors will argue for the first time that even those outside the loop of genocidal orders bear legal consequences for being a “cog in the machine”:
Groening was not one of those who decided who would die and who might live. His job was to confiscate the victims’ valuables. He was Death’s book keeper — or, as he says, a mere cog in the machine.
But those who have pushed for this trial say without cogs, machines don’t run.
In the past, German justice has been content to charge only those directly involved in the killing.
But Thomas Walther, the retired German judge who built this case, thinks many were let off too easy.
Ironically, Groening’s role in the machinery of Auschwitz only came to light when he emerged to rebut the arguments of Holocaust deniers. In 2005, Groening emerged to provide his eyewitness testimony to the BBC in order to “oppose the Holocaust deniers that claim Auschwitz never happened”:
Groening has never denied being in Auschwitz. Appearing in the BBC documentary “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution” in 2005, he said that pervasive Holocaust denial had led to him to speak out.
“I see it as my task now, at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced, and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened,” he said. “I saw the crematoria, I saw the burning pits.”
Interviewed by Der Spiegel magazine in the same year, he described an incident while on “ramp duty” when he heard a baby crying. “I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs,” he said. “He smashed the baby’s head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.”
But Groening denied his own culpability in the same interview. “Accomplice would almost be too much for me,” he told Der Spegel. “I would describe my role as a small cog in the gears. If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent.”
Until now, Groening was correct in terms of German law. To be tried for Holocaust crimes there, a defendant had to be tied to overt acts that resulted in one or more murders in the camps or in the forced deportations to them. Groening had originally been charged in the mid-1980s, but released because of that lack of connection. Walther considers that a gross miscarriage of justice, as the cogs in the machine of history’s worst genocide made it possible for the machine to succeed.
“Has this been a failure of the German justice system over the course of the last 40 years, 60 years?” he asks rhetorically. “You know that answer; yes. It’s no question that the justice system has failed. It’s no question… It’s a big, big failure.
Phillips notes that Groening has never denied his involvement in the Nazi’s “final solution.” He’s only denied his personal guilt — a self-serving fiction, says Phillips, that may finally be laid to rest in court.
If so, it may be the last time we see a Nazi convicted by a court of law. Seventy years later, they’re almost all gone — either dead from natural causes without ever having to account for their grotesque crimes, or having gone to prison at some point over the last several decades. Hedy Bohm is also among a passing generation of survivors of the camps, whose personal testimony will have to live on in depositions, interviews, and the stories of their descendants. Too many of the perpetrators escaped justice in this life, while too few of the victims received it.
Will Germany’s justice system take one last opportunity to establish the guilt of the accomplices?