This week, in the German town of Lueneburg, a 93-year-old man went on trial accused of being an accessory to 300,000 murders.
Whether you welcome the unedifying sight of Oskar Groening (pictured right, in court), a man not long for this world, being hauled before a judge depends on whether you see him as a frail old man bent over a walking stick or a 21-year-old petty thief in 1944 when he stood on the unloading ramps of the most infamous Nazi death camp, plundering valuables from Hungarian Jews – a morbid mission that earned him the moniker, ‘The Accountant of Auschwitz’.
Between 16 May and 11 July that year, when the Nazi Holocaust reached its frenzied height, some 137 trains carrying 425,000 Jews pulled into the platform of death to be greeted by this grim reaper.
Groening’s deeds are not in doubt. He has spoken openly about Auschwitz. By his own admission, he was an enthusiastic Nazi, but one without blood on his hands. At least not directly. He told the court this week: “I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.” Groening recalled the arrival of Jewish prisoners and witnessing an SS soldier throw a baby against a truck, “and his crying stopped”.
Since the 2011 prosecution of Ivan Demjanjuk, dubbed ‘Ivan The Terrible’ for his involvement in the death of 29,000 Jews in Sobibor, Germany’s legal focus has moved away from prosecuting the hundreds of high-level perpetrators towards the tens of thousands who enabled the slaughter. Now, any former Nazi who acquiesced to evil can be charged as an accessory to mass murder.
Groening’s trial, the first test of this new legal goalpost, has sparked a fresh wave of investigations into second-degree suspects, among them eight former Majdanek guards who may also face trial. Rather than prosecutors proving his involvement in specific deaths, Goening’s fate hinges on claims that his actions “supported the Nazis systematic killing campaign”. He faces a sentence of 15 years in prison.
More than one million people were murdered at Groening’s place of work, almost all of them Jews. Of 8,000 men and 200 women believed to have been his colleagues, fewer than 1,200 faced trial.
However wretched this minute number seems, it still represents a far higher proportion than any other camp. Thousands – if not tens of thousands – simply got away with aiding and abetting slaughter. Within this new legal framework, justice now seems more about delivering a spectacle than a conviction; about creating an eleventh-hour opportunity to reflect on mankind’s darkest hour. If any good can come from playing out the last days of this man’s long life in the public eye, it’s that lessons from history might still be learned.
As the final Nazis and survivors pass on, proving one wretched man’s guilt – whatever guilt now means – seems secondary to sending an unequivocal message to future generations. After 70 years, this is as good as justice gets.