Normally, the death of a 96 year old Nazi in Germany would hardly warrant any media attention, but that was certainly not what happened this week in the case of Oskar Groening.

Over 1,000 media outlets all over the world reported his death, and for good reason, since his story was unusual in many respects, and his fate can serve as a symbol of Germany’s very belated efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

Until a decade ago, when Germany changed it prosecution policy vis-à-vis Nazi war criminals, it appeared that there was no likelihood that Groening would ever be prosecuted for his service as the bookkeeper of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

Up to that point, in order to put a Nazi on trial in Germany, prosecutors had to prove that the suspect had committed a specific crime against a specific victim and that the crime had been motivated by racial hatred.

That policy was dramatically changed about ten years ago, when the Americans obtained a deportation order against Sobibor death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk for concealing his World War II service with the Nazis, but could not find a single country willing to prosecute him. They ultimately turned to the Germans, who came up with a solution that was absolutely brilliant, and changed the entire legal landscape of the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, The Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s top Nazi hunter

Thomas Walther and Kirsten Goetze, two prosecutors working on Nazi cases, suggested that since the sole purpose of the death camps was the murder of innocent civilians, anyone who served there in any capacity could be convicted not of murder, but of accessory to murder, for which the punishment was 5-15 years imprisonment. Demjanjuk was the precedent, having been convicted in 2011, and then the Germans began looking for anyone who served in a death camp or with the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) for which the same reasoning applied, and that’s how Groening suddenly became a suspect.

There were, however, two highly unusual elements to Groening’s case. The first was that there was no indication that he had been physically involved in the murder process at Auschwitz. The second was that about fifteen years ago, Groening in response to a Holocaust denier, admitted his service in the camp and publically described some of the atrocities in interviews. At his trial, he also admitted his “moral guilt,” but failed to assume criminal responsibility for his role in the camp.

To date, three death camp operatives (Demjanjuk, Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning and Groening) have been convicted in Germany since 2011, and all appealed against their verdicts, but Groening was the only one who lived long enough to have his appeal officially rejected in a landmark decision which reinforced the validity of prosecuting any individual who served in any capacity in a death camp.

Groening was about to be sent to jail to finally start serving his 4 year sentence, when he died awaiting his final appeal for clemency to the governor of Lower Saxony. Shoah victims never had that option, and the SS at Auschwitz never had any mercy on them, murdering men, women and children, and even elderly people who were older that Groening was when he died in a hospital bed.

As important as these belated trials are in Germany, they lose some of their effect if none of those convicted are punished. It’s time the that the wheels of justice in these cases move much more quickly, keeping in mind that the Nazi wheels of murder were among the fastest ever.

  • Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center – Israel office and Eastern European Affairs Coordinator