A 93-year-old is on trial for acts that date back more than 70 years. Auschwitz is a symbol of evil, and this trial also has largely symbolic importance, writes DW's Felix Steiner.
"The bookkeeper of Auschwitz" is what the German media is calling Oskar Gröning. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this title is nonsense! If Gröning had really been the bookkeeper of Auschwitz, we could even be grateful to him in some way. For it is only to the meticulousness of the accountants of Auschwitz that we owe our knowledge of the enormity of the production-line murder of the Jews of Europe.
More fitting would probably be "The porter of Auschwitz" - because one of Gröning's tasks was to clear the ramp of the luggage left behind by those who were led straight to the gas chambers upon arrival in Auschwitz.
Few faced justice
Lance Corporal Gröning rose to the rank of sergeant in the killing machine of Auschwitz. As far as we know, he was not directly involved in the killings, and was not one of those who shot or savaged prisoners or threw Zyklon B crystals down the shafts of the gas chambers. There's no accusation of this sort in the prosecutors' 85-page indictment. But Gröning was an SS man in Auschwitz, like 7,000 other Germans, of whom only 100 ever ended up in the dock.
Gröning has made no secret of his past. He testified as a witness in court against a murderer at Auschwitz. Years ago, he gave detailed interviews about his time in the extermination camp - both to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and to the BBC. He was neither on the run nor in hiding, and has led a normal life in Germany for almost 70 years.
So why put the nearly 93-year-old on trial now? The answer says more about the German judiciary after 1945 than about the perpetrators of that time.
For decades, the only ones who were tried were those who could be shown to be personally responsible for the murders. Gröning, too, was under investigation for a long time, but charges were dropped 30 years ago due to a lack of evidence.
It was only in 2011, with the trial of SS guard John Demjanjuk from the Sobibor extermination camp, that the views of German judges changed. Since that decision, everyone who was ever employed by a camp can now be charged as an accessory to murder - even if he was only a cook.
And so the circle of those under investigation expanded. But now very few of them are still alive, and those who remain are already 90 or older.
Symbolism over substance
At this point in time, the trial is therefore mainly symbolic. Firstly, for the German judiciary itself: With a decision against Gröning, a new generation of judges can set themselves apart from the highly dubious tradition of their predecessors. Even if Gröning has, as he says, suffered nightmares for decades as a result of his experiences, an open confession, an acknowledgement of guilt, a sign of repentance and a request for forgiveness could also help him.
In contrast to other elderly defendants, he has not hidden behind reports about his health to try to escape judgment. On the first day of his trial, he seized the opportunity to acknowledge his guilt and ask for forgiveness. For this he deserves recognition. And one hopes he will get this message across, especially to those who to this day still hold up Hitler as a great German.
And last but not least, this late trial is important for the equally old survivors of Auschwitz: Several of them have come from across the world to Lüneburg to state for the record, probably for the last time, what was done to them. And to express their pain, which has not gone away even after 70 years, to the perpetrator's face once again in a public forum.
In the face of all this, the judgment, which will be read out in three months, is almost secondary. The moral judgment over the perpetrators and supporters of genocide was already handed down long ago.
And if Oskar Gröning is convicted, it's unlikely he will serve time in jail, given his age. The justice system in today's Germany, unlike that under National Socialism, is very merciful.
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