The trial of 93-year-old Oskar Gröning, otherwise known as the "bookkeeper" of Auschwitz, has begun in the German city of Lüneburg. Thomas Walther, the lawyer representing the victims and their relatives, spoke to DW.
Deutsche Welle: Frankfurt public prosecutors filed charges against the accused, Oskar Gröning, back in 1977, but the case was eventually dropped in 1985 following a long investigation. Why have new proceedings begun after such a long time?
Thomas Walther: The turning point was the 2011 case against the former concentration camp guard, John Demjanjuk, in Munich. Up until that time, there was an old legal doctrine that said charges could only be brought against those who were proven to be directly involved, or very close to, the killing process. In the case of Demjanjuk, I could show that any form of support for the machinery of death could be considered as aiding murder and relevant to criminal proceedings. We aren't focusing here on the entire Holocaust, but on a specific offense - that 300,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz were murdered in the camp's gas chambers. Now, I only need to prove that the defendant was, at some point, involved in this predicate offense.
Why would the proceedings result in a conviction this time around?
My hope this time stems from the fact that the indictment has been excellently formulated. Apart from that, the legal issues are so completely obvious that I can seriously say that no lawyer has doubts that there'll also be a verdict. The specific accusation relates to two points. Firstly, that Gröning used his role in the management of prison property to collect money belonging to the Jews, count it, and then bring it to Berlin. His second task took place on the ramp where the trains arrived at the camp. He had to ensure all the suitcases, dresses, and the dead and dying prisoners from the previous trains were removed from the ramp before the next train arrived with another group of deportees. That was Gröning's main task, and this was also confirmed by his superiors.
In previous Nazi trials, defendants have denied their involvement, or tried to use legal loopholes to escape conviction. How has 93-year-old Oskar Gröning behaved until now?
Given his past behavior, I'm convinced Gröning will present himself quite differently than Demjanjuk and his defense lawyer in Munich. There is no indication that there'll be the same kind of dramatic show in court. Gröning may use a walker, but mentally he is entirely sound. He doesn't deny that he was at Auschwitz. He doesn't deny that there was a Holocaust. The only objection is that he doesn't see his role as aiding a crime. In particular, he's played down the significance of his specific actions on the ramp. He has, for example, claimed that he only had to make sure none of the luggage items were stolen.
Gröning has been charged with accessory in the murder of 300,000 people. Do you think he will admit his guilt?
How far his testimony will go, and how far he'll admit his guilt in a criminal sense, I just don't know. I expect that he'll still speak about moral guilt, but that's not punishable in a court of law. It will come down to how much his own beliefs change over the course of these court proceedings, and whether he comes to realize later on that it perhaps might not be so detrimental for him to admit his complicity and criminal guilt. If that happens, it would be an absolute isolated case - that has never happened before. [Gröning has since admitted that he at least "morally" shares the guilt and has asked for forgiveness; the ed.]
You represent 31 of more than 60 plaintiffs. What have they suffered through?
I have a client who had eight siblings, another who had nine, and all of them - without exception - were murdered after their arrival in Auschwitz, along with their parents. A big family of nine or 10 people, reduced to just one surviving 14-year-old boy in the space of two hours - that is just one fate. In one case, the son, at the age of 14, was put in the same group as his father, with the people who were to work in the Birkenau camp. The boy managed to escape under the train carriages to stay with his mother - the side where the smaller siblings were being gathered, where people were being led to the gas chambers. That was the first time his mother yelled at him, she told him to be a man and go back. The boy then actually managed to return to his father, and it was only because of that that he managed to survive.
In Canada, I filmed a number of interviews with survivors. An 87-year-old Jewish businessman, who had been extremely successful in his life, sat across from me and told me that every morning when he wakes up, he sees the image of his parents and his 11-year-old sister and breaks into tears. He told me that not a day goes by that he doesn't feel this loss, pain and grief again and again like a knife to the heart. That has been going on for 70 years.
Due to the large media interest in the case, the trial is being held in Lüneberg's Knight Academy building
What do the victims of the Nazi atrocities expect to get out of this case?
The punishment plays little or no role for most of those affected. The plaintiffs hope to give their murdered relatives a voice, a face, some human dignity in this German court, by properly taking care of this part of the case. It's extremely important to them that the court and the German judiciary listen to them, that perhaps a dialogue with the defendant could open, and that after all this time there will be a response from the judiciary and some sense of justice.
How would you describe the involvement of Germans in the leadup to this court case?
I would say it's been quite positive. Media and media professionals don't just report on the case because it's their job to, but because - like many people you talk to - they have genuine empathy. Some people wonder what it's all for after so many years. But if you talk to them and if they listen, there's usually an understanding. If you talk in concrete terms about what specifically went on in concentration camps, then there's almost no non-understanding or non-acceptance.
Thomas Walther is an attorney based in the town of Kempten, in Bavaria. Since 2006, he has been involved with the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg, where he has gained many insights in preparation for the Gröning case.
The interview was conducted by Wolfgang Dick.