The "Accountant of Auschwitz"'s legal reckoning marks the end of an era for Germanyby Ben Knight / April 30, 2015 / Leave a comment
In Lüneburg, an unremarkable city in northern Germany, what could turn out to be the last ever Holocaust trial is underway. It will mark the beginning of the end of a torturous, 70-year chapter in the history of the German judiciary.
On a trip to Japan earlier this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel had some advice for her hosts on the subject of neighbourliness. The best way for Japan to ease tensions with the rest of East Asia, she told an audience of academics, would be to face your past and own up to the crimes of the Second World War. Look how well Germany reconciled with the rest of Europe, she declared, that was partly because “there was a great willingness to call things by their name.”
Even as the Chancellor was offering this wisdom, this trial was being prepared in Lüneburg that throws into doubt her neat version of how post-war Germany dealt with its past. Three months after Merkel joined other world leaders and a handful of survivors to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a 93-year-old man went on trial for his actions there. If Germans really have confronted the horrors of Nazism, how can it have taken nearly three-quarters of a century to bring one of its alleged criminals to trial, a man who has been living openly among them all this time?
Cornelius Nestler and Thomas Walther, the lawyers representing 50 Auschwitz survivors and co-plaintiffs in the trial, have made clear how important they consider its historical context. “The main object of this criminal procedure is also to document the decades-long failure of the judiciary,” they said in a statement released on 27th April on behalf of their clients.
The defendant, Oskar Gröning, was a 22-year-old apprentice banker whose job was to count money taken from Jews and feed it into Germany’s war economy. Later, the “Accountant of Auschwitz” became one of the few SS officers to give interviews, in which he recounted his experiences and admitted his participation. Gröning began the trial by acknowledging his “moral guilt,” as he had done in a BBC interview in 2005. “This moral guilt I confess, with remorse…