The Last Auschwitz Trial, Moral Guilt, and Criminal Guilt

On June 2, 2015, I attended the trial of Oskar Groening, a German SS officer who was assigned to Auschwitz in 1942-1944. He is being tried for being an accomplice to murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz, the number of people sent to the gas chambers during the time he was there. Another 100,000 were sent to work during the same period, where many more died from hunger and the cold. Most were Hungarian Jews. His trial is in Luenburg, Germany, where I am a Guest Professor this summer. The trial is here because he lives in this judicial district.

At Auschwitz, Groening worked as a bookkeeper. His assignment was to catalog the luggage, money, and affects from the luggage of Jews brought to Auschwitz and send it to Berlin. By his own account, he was also occasionally assigned to guard duty, including at the entry point to Auschwitz, where an early decision was made about who would go to the gas chambers, and who would live a bit longer by one of the SS officers assigned that task.

After the war, Groening was sent to a British Prisoner of War Camp in Britain until about 1947. After that, he returned to Germany, and lived with his family near where I am staying in Lueneburg, and had a middle class lifestyle until retirement in the 1980s.

Groening told his wife never to ask about what he did during the war. And apparently this was the case until about 1984. Groening was a stamp collector, and very active in local philately club. One of his acquaintances in the club told him about a new radical view emerging in parts of Germany (and elsewhere) that the Holocaust was a fable-that it never happened, and that what happened at Auschwitz was not technically feasible. He recommended a book by a “Holocaust denier.” Groening took the book, apparently read it, and then returned it with a note: “I saw everything. The gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there.”

With this note, Groening, as an Auschwitz guard, became a minor celebrity. Over the next thirty years his testimony about death, selection procedures, gas chambers, and crematoria were written about in German and international publications. The message of the former “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” was the same: “I was there, I saw it, I still lose sleep over it, I knew what happened when I was there, I am morally guilty, and it must never happen again.” He accepted moral guilt for his participation in the Holocaust. He continues this testimony up to this day, and regrets his participation.

But moral guilt and criminal guilt are two different things. Courts are in charge of criminal guilt, and over the decades, they have established criteria for who should be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. A number of the organizers and more sadistic guards at Auschwitz were convicted at the end of the war, and hanged or imprisoned by the victorious Allies. Others were given sentences, most of which were shortened in the 1950s, and then released. Most of 6,000 or so SS who served in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945 have of course since died of old age.

But the question for the courts linger. At what level of responsibility should the perpetrators be held accountable? Who is a perpetrator, who is an accomplice, and who is just a bureaucratic functionary? Is there a difference? Recently, German prosecutors assert that being a cog in the machine, whether a guard or a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, was enough since how could the Holocaust have been committed, unless the “little people” following orders and participated? People like Oskar Groening, and others, even if they did not make the “big decisions” have criminal guilt, too. The fact is that if the little people had not been there, the 1.2 million people could not have been delivered to the crematoria of Auschwitz by just 6,000 SS.

So, consistent with this principle, German courts in 2012 issued what are probably the final arrest warrants for World War II war crimes. The indictments are for men who were guards and bureaucrats—and by now all are in their 90s. Groening continues to acknowledge moral guilty, but claims not to be criminally guilty—but is willing to let the court decide.

Groening’s trial for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people began here in Lueneburg this last April, and will be concluded in July. A few survivors of Auschwitz gave testimony in April and May—they are in their late 70s and 80s, and all acknowledge that they personally did not remember Groening being there. Children of survivors have also related the stories of their parents. The day I was in court on June 2, the witness was Angela Orosz-Richt. Her parents were sent to Auschwitz in May 1944 and she was born secretly in Auschwitz’ barracks just before Christmas in 1944.

At the ramp in May 1944, her father was sent one direction, never to be seen again—presumably went straight to gas chambers, and was turned to ashes at Auschwitz’ crematoria soon after. Her mother was eventually selected by Dr. Josef Mengele for medical experiments on sterilization. Mengele sterilized her in a series of experiments which involved injecting hot burning substances into her cervix, apparently without noticing that she was pregnant. And seven months later, in the dead of winter, Oroscz-Richt was born in the Auschwitz, weighing only one kilogram. Two months later, Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz. The young mother and her baby made her way back to Budapest where she remembered being asked for her place of birth, and writing “Auschwitz.”

They later moved to Canada where Angela Orosz-Richt had a daughter. Oroscz-Richt had heard about Auschwitz from her mother on occasion: about the burning shots in her cervix from Dr. Mengele, the hunger, and the cold. But she said the stories really came out when her own daughter in 1986 questioned her grandmother about family history for a school report. And that apparently was the details we heard of her mother’s story tumbled out in court on June 5, 2015.

Angela Orosz-Richt visited Auschwitz, her birthplace, for the first time last January on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp—walking her way around her birthplace, wondering if she was walking on the ashes of her own father.

My sense is that Groening will be convicted—but then what will happen? The penalty for accomplice to murder of 300,000 people is up to 15 years in prison for a 93 year old man.

A few court dates have been cancelled due to his health, but most have been conducted. Notably, the other defendants in the indictment have been excused from prosecution due to ill health, and other incapacity—it is generally believed that Groening’s will be the last of the World War II war crimes trial.

Germany today is of course a very different place than it was in 1944, and 1945 when it committed the Holocaust, and was bombed into submission by the victorious Allies. Still even in 2015, The War is always present. There are the understated memorials to those who died, which include the brass “bricks” in German streets identifying where the Jews lived before they were deported and murdered at places like Auschwitz.

There are also occasional memorials to civilians and soldiers who died. The obelisks of the Memorial the Murdered Jews in Berlin is the most well-known perhaps, and the most disconcerting. Disorientation was indeed its purpose. And there are frequent documentaries and stories in the German press each time a significant anniversary comes, or major figure dies.

In some ways, trials like Groening’s are in their own way also a memorial to World War II victims. I was impressed that the majority of the people attending the trial (which was translated into English, Hungarian, and Hebrew), were young people, many in the twenties. They struck me as modern Germans, too, some had piercings and other fashion statements of the 21st century. And yet they were there, to hear about the crimes of a really old man, and the testimony of a 70 year old woman who described the horrors of what can easily be thought of as a different time. But their presence, and the coverage by the press, asserted that the acknowledgment of the horrors of World War II is still important.

As for Oskar Groening himself, I do not yet know quite what to think. Germans I have talked to find his behavior at Auschwitz worthy of censure and conviction—they find the distinction between “moral guilt” and “criminal guilt” to be specious, and the scope of the crime committed to be so extraordinary that it is worthy of censure seventy years later. How can passively watching of the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria which Groening admitted, be excused? And yet, I also find Groening to be a tragic figure—he was after all the one who reacted so vociferously and vigorously after the Holocaust denier approached him at the stamp collectors meeting in 1985, and for thirty years has consistently insisted that it happened, it was criminal, and must never happen again.

One of my Facebook friends thought a play could be written about the case. I think that she may be right. Plays are well-suited to tragedy, and this is yet another appropriate way to tell the story of Holocaust and the ordinary people—people like me, if truth be told—who observe, but do not obstruct?

Such trials are of course never enough to equal the scope of the crime committed, but neither are memorials. But in a small way, such trials are a gift of Germany to the world, by a country that committed one of the greatest crimes ever. By pursuing Oskar Groening 70 years after the war, the young people with the piercings who were at the trial, or watching the television coverage, will relay to their own grandchildren in 50 years, what it was like to gaze into the faces of people who saw Auschwitz.

Related Writing

To read more about my thoughts regarding justice, genocide, and war please see Chapter 5 of When Killing is a Crime linked here, a recent blog about bodies from the Kagera River linked here, and what a baker once told me about the fire bombing of Dresden linked here.

Originally Posted, June 2015 at Ethnography.com

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