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 lined here.

Mathematicians Like Social Sciences, Too!

Robert Harrington of the American Mathematical Society is trying t understand how young mathematician use their scholarly products.  As an an “experiment” he tried out qualitative interview methods to investigate his question.  Here is what he found out:

As a scientist, I have ideas about what scientific method is, and what evidence is. I now understand the value of the qualitative approach – hard for a scientist to say. Qualitative research opens a window to descriptive data and analysis. As our markets change, understanding who constitutes our market, and how users behave is more important than ever.

You can read the whole article here.

 

Good Sociology Coming out of the New York Times and a Business School

Someone is doing some pretty good sociology on the New York Times–a Business Professor no less!  Like I wrote before, sociology is among the most widespread and successful of all disciplines in the academy, and it is not only found in Sociology Departments.  The article is callsed “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work” and it is about how discrimination in hiring practices.

Wanting to work with people like ourselves is not new. In the past, employers overtly restricted job opportunities based on sex, race and religion, which is now illegal. But cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination that keeps demographic and cultural diversity down, all in the name of employee enjoyment and fun.

The whole editorial by Prof. Lauren Rivera of Northwesterh University Business School is here.

Open Source Academic Publication and Those Frustrating Paywalls!

Rex over at Savage Minds has another editorial about the need for Open Access in academic publishing. This is a movement across academic landscape, in which publishers are asking how they can produce well-edited articles which maintain a legitimacy within academia. As Kerim points out, the standard responses of the conservative old-time academic journals is, well, conservative. Meaning, that they do not want to take the financial risks associated with moving on-line. As is pointed out by Rex, Cultural Anthropology has taken the jump, and gone Open Access. American Anthropologist remains behind paywalls, as described in a recent editorial there which, amazingly, is not behind a paywall.   really only readily accessible primarily to those of us own the cultural capital of university library passwords. The rest of the world is left out.

Obviously, going on-line means that someone needs to pay. Various journals are using endowments, charging author “page charges,” and using advertising revenue. Then there is of course academic writing at places like Savage Minds who get their funding from who-knows-where, though my guess is that the editors are ponying up the annual $300 or so that it costs to host a website themselves, while also donating their labor and time. Funny thing is, I don’t find the quality of editing, etc., at Savage Minds to be that different from what is hidden behind the paywalls. If Savage Minds can do it, why can’t American Anthropologist which has the backing of the hoary old American Anthropological Association? True they do not provide precisely the same service to the world of anthropology that American Anthropologist does, but I do not find their contribution to be the many multiples of importance more than is implied by American Anthropologists’ defense of their paywall.

Rex, Kerim, and the others at Savage Minds occasionally ask rhetorically what the academic publishing world will look like in ten years. My guess is that the journals that are by hook and crook able to make their material Open Access will be far more important. There are hundreds of millions of people around the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America where university systems are expanding rapidly.  They will be coming into universities as undergraduates and graduates in the next 10 years, and not all of them will go to universities that buy passwords to get past the paywalls. And guess where those hundreds of millions will go? They will go to the Open Source journals. Open Source is the future. Journals that do not figure out how to get there will be left behind, unread, and worst of all, uncited.

PS.  Authors are also not cooperating.  Have a look at the accumulating uploads at sites like academia.edu, and research gate.  Much of that which traditional publishers are attempting to paywall, are slipping out into the wild west of the internet.

Caddish Behavior as Described by Max Weber: Ethics, Romantic Love, and the Versailles Treaty Negotiations of 1919

In this extract from Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation.” Max Weber is about to let loose regarding the insistence of the victorious Allies of World War I that Germany accept fault for starting the war in 1914, and feel “guilty” for doing so. He doesn’t like this, and compares it to the ethics of a romantic cad.

 

You will rarely find a man, who no longer loves a woman and therefore turns to another, will not feel the need to justify himself by arguing: “She was not worth my love, or she disappointed me”—or what other reasons there may be.

 

The woman has not only to cope with the sober fact that he doesn’t love her anymore, but also with the fact that he makes up a legitimacy for himself in a manner no chivalrous knight would.

 

He sees this made-up legitimacy as his right, and adds insult to injury by blaming the wreckage on her wrongdoing. The successful erotic competitor proceeds in just the same way; he argues that the adversary has to be the one who is unethical, after all, otherwise he would not have been defeated.

 

Of course, there is no difference; rather it is taken for granted that the winner claims with an undignified bossiness after any successful war: “I won because I was in the right.”

 

[This same phenomenon happens] when someone succumbs emotionally under the atrocities of the war and now, instead of plainly stating “It was just too much,” feels the need to legitimate his war fatigue to himself by substituting his feelings [for reason] and assert: “I was not able to take this war any more, because I had to fight for a morally wrong cause.”

The same phenomenon holds true for everybody who is defeated in wartime. So instead of looking for the “guilty culprit” like nattering washwomen— and especially when it is evident that the structure of society is responsible for the war—every manly and austere attitude [simply] signals to the enemy, “We lost the war—you won the war.”

This has been taken care of! Now, let’s talk about the conclusions… (pp. 183-184)

Weber is about to become involved with the Versailles Treaty negotiations on behalf of the defeated Germans.  At the Versailles negotiations, the Allies will present Germany with the options of accepting their surrender conditions, or face an invasion.  Weber’s position of course is of a (defeated) German nationalist. In such a circumstance, how could he proceed?  How could he victorious Allies proceed?

From Max Weber, (1919) “Politics as Vocation” in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan 2015.

A sample chapter from our book Weber’s Rationalism is here.

My Mass Grave Rediscovered!

In 1994-1995 I helped finance and dig a mass grave on the Rwanda-Tanzania border.   This happened because the refugee assistance agency I worked (TCRS) removed bodies from the Kagera River from June 1994-June 1995. Tanzanians were hired to first clean up the bodies that were there from earlier months when the genocide was occurring, and after that to make a “net” to catch any other bodies which might float down the river from whatever source.  The “Body Project” during this time took 917 bodies (or so) out of the river. 311 came out in June-July, 1994, which is when the genocide was still going on. But then 606 more victims came down the river after the genocide was “over” and caught in the net we made. These were fresh bodies who often arrived with their hands tied behind their back, and a bullet in the head. We asked one of the Rwandan border guards from the new government who the floaters might be, and he said they were either victims of the genocide committed by the former government, or perhaps had committed suicide. It was clear from what he said that there was to be no blame for the new government.

We tried to imagine the gymnastics involved with tying your hands behind your back, shooting yourself in the head, and then jumping in the river. Somehow it didn’t compute.

Anyway, we made reports to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who passed the reports up to Geneva, where there was finally some view that perhaps things were not as peaceful as the new Rwandan government asserted. This was important at the time because the international community very much wanted the refugees to return to Rwanda so that they would not have to pay to succor them in the large Tanzanian refugee camps established in 1994.

Which caused us to wonder: Who was sending us these bodies, and what were they trying to say to us and the world? Here is what I wrote in January 1995 after a particularly busy December when 80 new victims came floating down the river:

So who is sending bodies to TCRS’s “body project” so faithfully? Is it the new Rwandan government? A revitalized Interahamwe militia [from the old government]? Both? I still do not know. However, my own conclusion after six months of collecting and burying 700 bodies is that both sides like the polarizing effects that bodies in the river creates among the 400,000 Hutu refugees in nearby Ngara refugee camps. The Hutu militants of course want the population to remain the refugee camps so they can organize a resistance movement. The Rwandan government on the other hand is avoiding the politically untenable consequences of…the millions of Hutus outside Rwanda returning. Seemingly, the bodies in the river serve both parties. Certainly, this would explain the ambivalence both sides have for the continuing appearance of bodies in the Kagera River.

Bob 2

In the strange world I lived in at the time, 917 bodies did not seem all that much—after all the death toll from the genocide and its aftermath is typically estimated at 800,000. At many of these sites in Rwanda, there are today massive memorials, and a national holiday when respects are made there. Forensic anthropologists sometimes go to evaluate how the victims, who were killed by the former Rwandan government. They evaluate how they died, and seek to identify victims, most of whom were from the minority Tutsi group who were the target of the genocide.

TCRS made a memorial too—a monument with words in four languages (English, French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda) which was dedicated in 1996 just before I left Tanzania, and then forgotten. After all, our memorial was a couple of kilometers inside Tanzania, and the victims probably included a lot of victims from the new (and current) government of Rwanda. So our memorial had weeds grow up around it. No memorial services, and no archaeologists. No on has ever contact me, either, even though I published about it in my 2001 book Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan. As for victims, only one has ever been identified—Ngirabatware son of Rubashurwelere whose Rwandan i.d. was sticking out of his pocket, and given to me in August 1994 still smelling of his death. For what it is worth, he is a Hutu, not Tutsi.

Bob 1

Our memorial was rediscovered in 2009, according to press reports, and there are plans to create a memorial there as well, according to later reports.  So my mass grave was lost and found in a period of 14 years. In the process, though, the memorial has become a “genocide” memorial—which means that the fact that so many of the victims were post-genocide execution victims, and arrived in Tanzania after the genocide ended is forgotten.

As for Ngirabatware, the Hutu victim we buried, I have never heard from his family, despite publishing his name in my book (p. 195).   He was born in 1957 and is from Cyabinbungu prefecture. He had four daughters born between 1980 and 1992. Maybe they are still in Rwanda wondering what happened to their father.