The trial of former SS officer Oskar Gröning has begun in a charged atmosphere of historical debate - and Holocaust-denial. DW’s reporter Ben Knight has witnessed the protests around the courthouse in Lüneburg.
There was trouble in the long line outside the far-too-small court building in Lüneburg where what could be the last ever Holocaust trial began at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. With only room for 60 spectators in the hall of the "Ritterakademie" building, around 40 people from a local anti-fascist group had arrived at six in the morning as part of a "place-holder" operation to ensure that relatives of the co-plaintiffs - some 65 Auschwitz survivors - would find space in the court.
"That was our main aim," Henryk Kuzbik told DW. "But our second aim was to make sure those people didn't get in." He was pointing to a group of around ten neo-Nazis who had not made it up quite as early, but took up the middle section of the line. "It would have been intolerable for the relatives to have those people in there," said Kuzbik. "And we wanted to show there are not just Nazis."
The neo-Nazis' informal leader, Thomas Wulff, who said he belonged to a "nationalist movement," began a series of angry debates with the gathered press pack and others in the line about German history and the Holocaust.
"This is a late Allied revenge trial," he told DW. "There's no defense in this country. [Oskar Gröning] was a victim of his time, and now he's a victim of the German justice system. You can write that there are still some Germans at the trial." Wulff, a known neo-Nazi, said he had received a "one-and-a-half-year probational sentence for asking questions."
Many German people had also come to show their support for the Holocaust victims. "It's very important that this trial is taking place now," said Meline Dumrese, who was one of the founding members of the organization that campaigned for the creation of the Holocaust memorial in central Berlin in 2005.
The neo-Nazis were accompanied by 87-year-old Ursula Haverbeck, who has received several fines in the past for questioning the Holocaust. She had appeared on a Youtube video posted on Monday condemning the trial and calling on protesters to attend. She also handed out a pamphlet entitled "Mass-murder in the concentration camp Auschwitz?" which questioned the historical evidence for the Holocaust and offered lower estimates for the number of murdered Jews. This is illegal in Germany.
Wulff was eventually shouted down by Kuzbik and his companions, who briefly chanted "Nazis out!" and held an up an Israeli flag while police officers kept the two sides apart. Wulf countered by calling out, "Israel was founded by terrorists."
Eventually the Holocaust-deniers were ordered to leave by police. A police spokesman, who was on the scene, said an investigation had been started into two people on charges of incitement to racial hatred, and a number of flyers had been confiscated that were suspected of spreading Holocaust-denial.
The incident was ironic because one reason why Gröning's case has come to trial is because he originally went public in the 1980s to counter Holocaust-deniers, one of the few former SS officers to do so. His testimony about his own actions, both to prosecutors and via extensive interviews to Der Spiegel and other media in 2005, provided vital evidence against other officers, but is now to be used as evidence in the case against him.
A judicial turning point
At a press conference on Monday, Hungarian co-plaintiff and Auschwitz survivor Eva Pusztai-Fahidi explained what the new trial meant to her personally. "In the 70 years since I left Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most important events that happened to me is this trial," she said. "It's a very important that I will be able to experience a trial of an SS man who served at Auschwitz. It's not about punishment, it's about the verdict."
"The important thing is that the trial is going on," survivor Hedy Bohm added. "My talking will be something of a voice for my parents and my family who are not here."
For attorneys like Thomas Walther, who is representing over 40 Auschwitz survivors and spent years trying to bring cases like Gröning's to court, the trial represents a crucial turning point in the history of the German judiciary. If Gröning is acquitted or the case dropped, it would mean a return to what many feel is decades of judicial quiescence over the Holocaust. One historian has calculated that around 6,500 SS officers served at Auschwitz alone and survived the Second World War. Only around 50 were ever convicted in Germany.
From the foundation of the new Germany in 1949 to 2011, hundreds of thousands of charges of murder and accessory to murder were dropped - because no proof of specific murders could be found, or no proof that specific actions "caused" the deaths of millions of people.
The old judicial inaction was partly down to the political climate in post-war Germany. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, in his determination to start Germany anew from a so-called Stunde Null ("zero hour"), discouraged the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators and allowed Nazi-era judges and other state officials to continue in their posts.
On top of this, the German criminal code was simply not equipped to punish the unique nature of the evil of the Nazi Holocaust. Although a law against genocide was introduced in the 1950s, it could not be used retroactively, meaning that the only charges against Nazi criminals could be murder or accessory to murder. Since the whole system of the Final Solution was based on de-personalizing the act of murder, in practice that meant very few individuals could be convicted.
Yet for many attorneys like Walther, even these caveats do not totally excuse the inaction of the German judiciary over the Holocaust. It was, after all, possible to convict the Hamburg-based student Mounir al-Motassadeq for accessory to murder for transferring money to the perpetrators of 9/11, yet Gröning's actions - transferring money to the SS - was not considered a crime when Frankfurt state prosecutors looked into his case in 1985. "The causality of his action" was not necessary "for the success of the extermination operation," they concluded. It was only in 2014 that Hanover state prosecutors disagreed and the case was re-opened.
Walther makes another modern comparison: "Some people do nothing but drive a car containing a kilo of hash from the Dutch border to Cologne - they don't touch it, they don't smoke it, they don't sell it - but they are still convicted of accessory to drug-dealing and get a year in prison," he told DW. "And yet an SS man who was in Auschwitz and made sure that no Jew escaped - people who were about to be killed - can't be prosecuted? It's complete madness."
Ingo Müller, a law professor who wrote the seminal book "Hitler's Justice" on the German judiciary's complicity in the Holocaust - both before and after 1945 - believes Gröning's case could be the last chance to correct that. "The new lawyers and prosecutors and judges are beginning to say that it is outrageous how justice was served in the last fifty years," he told DW. "And we finally have to change that."
The neo-Nazis have been banned from coming to the courthouse for the day, but they are expected to show up again tomorrow. "But we will be there too," said Kuzbik. "We're going to be there every day of the trial." Some 27 court days have been planned for the trial until the end of July.