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'Old, frail, repentant… But still a criminal: The bookkeeper of Auschwitz should die in prison'

Oskar Gröning looks like he could be a kindly grandfather. He probably is. But he also volunteered to serve in one of the greatest murder camps ever constructed.

Aaron McKenna

THE CONVICTION DURING the week of former SS member and Auschwitz concentration camp guard Oskar Gröning was followed by a rather troubling outpouring of sympathy for the man. Convicted for his part as an accessory in the murder of some 300,000 people, there have been more than a few commentators who wondered why the courts would chase a 94 year-old-man some 70 years after the events for which, really, he was only a minor cog following orders.

If that is becoming the prevailing view towards the final convictions of the final solution, then we risk as a human race to easily repeat the acts of the past as time dims the memory even further.

Oskar Gröning cuts a figure far removed from the SS men of central casting. He is a very old, very frail man in glasses; not a Ralph Fiennes interpretation of Amon Goeth or Christoph Waltz’s fictional Hans Landa. Even pictures of Gröning in his SS days fail to cut the figure of evil we might expect.

Of course, that’s the thing about the Holocaust, as with most genocides. The people who perpetrate them don’t look evil, they look ordinary… Because they are ordinary. That’s the key to understanding the whole riddle of how a world goes mad and pours so much resource and industry into mass murder. There’s nothing special about Oskar Gröning, and he looks like he could be a kindly grandfather. He probably is. But he also volunteered for the SS in 1940 and served in one of the greatest murder camps ever constructed.

Nazis realised they needed to keep their charges calm on the way to the gassing chambers

He claims that he never murdered anyone by his own hand, but he did work at the sidings when trains arrived. He claims, innocently, that he was only minding the baggage that arrived. This may sound banal but actually it was a key part of the process. The Nazis learned early that they needed to keep their charges calm on the way to the gassing chambers. At Treblinka, where between 700,000 and 900,000 were killed, an entire mock train station was constructed to convince victims they were arriving at a colony for resettlement.

Minding luggage was a key part of the ruse: having people label their luggage and take receipts for them and, as prosecutors successfully argued, having officials like Gröning guard it on the other end provided a feeling of security and calm. “You’ll soon be reunited with your luggage and your loved ones, after this exam and a shower.” And so it went.

Germany Auschwitz Trial Source: Czarek Sokolowski

The problem of bringing people to justice was effectively ignored

Gröning could and should have been tried many times in the past, but following the end of allied military occupation the West German authorities became very narrow in their reading of the law. Cases were not widespread from the 1950s onwards, and officials and jurists found ways to collapse trials, acquit the clearly guilty or hand out light sentences. The fact that Nazi party membership had reached 8 million by 1945, up from 2 million in 1933, might go some of the way to helping explain why this was so.

Hans Globke, Director of the Federal Chancellery of West Germany and close advisor to Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963, was never a member of the Nazi party. He had, however, helped formulate the Nuremberg Laws that laid the legal foundation for the Holocaust. He worked at the Ministry of the Interior and his boss Wilhelm Frick, who was tried and executed at Nuremberg as one of the men most directly responsible for the creation of the death camps, praised Globke as “the most capable and efficient official in my ministry.” The West Germans didn’t have to look too far to find skeletons, so they avoided the problem by ignoring it.

A lot of summonses got lost in the post all over Europe after the war

The Germans, to be fair, weren’t the only ones at that after the war. The Prefect of Paris Police from 1958 to 1967 Maurice Papon, personal friend of Charles de Gaulle and later a government minister, would only be tried in his twilight years for his role in deporting Jews to death camps. Anne Frank was pulled from her attic after being informed on by a Dutch collaborator who is estimated to have sold out up to 200 Jewish families in hiding.

In Budapest there is a simple monument of shoes beside the river Danube where Hungarian militias made Jews take theirs off before shooting them in the head to fall in the river in 1945 as the Red Army approached. There’s a lot of summonses that got lost in the post all over Europe after the war, that might also explain to you the seeming paranoia of Zionists who believe that the only place Jews are truly safe is in a Jewish-run, Jewish-defended state.

The current trial of Gröning only became possible when latter day German prosecutors established in law that they could try people as accessories to murder, as the statute of limitations on murder of 15 years in Germany otherwise absolved a lot of people from 1960 onwards.

If we are seriously contemplating whether or not these men should be tried for “only following orders” then I might suggest that we have regressed in our view of the world and civilized nature. It is well established that soldiers are culpable for obeying illegal orders; and after the war this was reaffirmed in the Nuremberg Principles. We’re not rolling back on that for the sake of a frail-looking old man with a tissue of excuses to pour his tears onto.

This is the least we can offer the victims

This last gasp of justice as these men reach their twilight years sends a mixed message to modern day genocidal regimes. The Nazis had in fact lived in fear of their crimes, and the SS went to great lengths to try to destroy evidence of camps as the Reich collapsed. Their own meticulous records, preserved after the war in triplicate, show security reports indicating widespread knowledge of and great fear in the general population of retaliation for the crimes committed “in the East”. What convictions of men like Gröning tells people today is that justice is relentless, but it often takes such a long time that it won’t matter to the majority of perpetrators. Murder away, lads. If you’re ever caught, it’ll be to spend your final days in a comfortable prison.

There is no statute of limitations on the Holocaust. As long as its perpetrators draw breath, few though they are, they should feel hunted and restless. It’s the least we can offer their victims. And for the benefit of future genocidal defendants, Germany and other European nations should take a long, cold, hard look at why it took till their ninth decades for men like Gröning to face justice.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Bookkeeper of Auschwitz receives his sentence for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder

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