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Germany

Elderly Nazis On Trial, And The Crime Of Germany's Post-War Legal System

Even at 93, Oskar Groening must still be tried for his alleged crimes. But the real question is why German authorities didn't try him decades ago.

93-year-old former SS officer Oskar Groening awaiting trial in Germany
93-year-old former SS officer Oskar Groening awaiting trial in Germany
Heribert Prantl

-OpEd-

HANOVER — Nazi killers have evaded justice for decades and decades. But things have finally changed and even suspected accessories to murder must now face trial. Such is the case of Oskar Gröning, 93, a former SS officer in Auschwitz.

Being any admission of guilt of the alleged criminal, every one of these long overdue trials should start with a confession by the legal authorities themselves. The justice system needs to explain why the defendants are only being charged now — when they are old and feeble — and not 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.

German Federal legal authorities should begin in this case by apologizing to the victims — and to the world in general — for taking so long to proceed with "the State vs. Oskar Gröning in 300,000 cases of accessory to murder." The delay is so exaggerated that punishment almost doesn’t make sense any longer.

Unfortunately, no such confession or apology will be forthcoming — that's not something our code of criminal procedure calls for. Nor was the system designed to mete out punishments that no longer make any sense. And yet that is precisely what the Gröning case involves.

When it comes to the last remaining Nazi henchmen, none of the rules and regulations apply. They could all be easily disregarded. The punishment of these defendants, who have reached the end of their lives, cannot be measured in time alone. It is measured in terms of eternity. The punishment consists in the "finding of personal guilt" of the defendant, in legally acknowledging the abhorrent truth.

It is not the fault of the current generation of Lord Justices that there has been barely any judicial review of Nazi crimes over the last few decades. They attempt to do what can be done at this stage. They install memorial plaques in the facades of their buildings to honor their Jewish colleagues, many of whom were banned or killed. And they try the remaining culprits and their accessories, provided they are still alive.

Many presidents of the Court allow for the true story of their courts to be written. They do not spare their Nazi predecessors and do not shrink form the task of naming and shaming the Lord Justices who simply tore the swastika from their robes and served happily in what was then West Germany.

In 1954, a convinced National Socialist became president of the Court of Munich. Earlier, as a public prosecutor, he had been responsible for charging Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit priest and outspoken Nazi opponent.

Last-second justice

And this was not necessarily a special occurrence in West Germany. Beneath the robes, brown uniforms were still showing. But at that time the legal authorities devoted themselves with dogged determination to fighting the Cold War — they devoted themselves in such a way that there was no energy left to address the Nazi past.

The enlightenment of the public about the Holocaust only began with the Auschwitz trial of 1964/1965. This particular trial was the work of one man, Frankfurt District Attorney Fritz Bauer. Without this man, who died in 1968, the general public would have continued to shy away from the crimes of the Nazis. And even then, the judicial clarification of these crimes was a half-hearted affair.

The legal authorities pretended that there was only one culprit, namely Hitler. Everyone else in the Nazi regime was considered to be just an accessory. The accessories were spared while the victims were made to remember each and every detail of their torment and agony, including the time, date and weather conditions.

The real turning point came decades later, at the John Demjanjuk trial in 2011. Ever since this trial, any sort of collaboration with the Nazi "machinery of death" has been seen as accessory to murder. Which is why Oskar Gröning, who was an accountant of Auschwitz, can now be tried at a court of law.

What is happening now amounts to last-second justice. Thank God, though, for this last second. It is a good thing that the legal authorities are attempting to draw this moment out — not to compensate for their own failings by trying old, feeble men, but to do what can still be done. Even at this late hour, it's imperative that they themselves overturn the unbelievable negation of the law that marked the Nazi era, and that they make this a tangible reality for all generations to come.

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