The case of Oskar Groening is one of the most unusual to have emerged in recent Holocaust study and memory. He attracted nicknames – “The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, “The Accountant of Auschwitz” – and when he died, in 2018, he had the distinction of being both one of the few SS officers stationed at the camp to have been tried in recent times, and just about the only to have spoken openly, in court and on television, about what he had seen and done. The irony of his case was that his singular willingness to talk in detail about his experiences opened the path to his high-profile prosecution and conviction as an accessory to mass murder.
Groening carried out administrative tasks at the camp between 1942 and 1944, most notably dealing with money in many currencies stolen from victims of Nazi war crimes as they arrived at Auschwitz. He did not directly participate in the mistreatment or murder of the camp’s victims, but he was present when atrocities were committed and performed a job useful to the running of the Auschwitz operation. After moving on from Auschwitz, Groening served with the German Army at the Battle of the Bulge. In later life, he was avid stamp collector.
It was when speaking with another collector that Groening’s life took an unexpected turn. The man he met tried to deny that the Holocaust had happened, something which Groening could not let go unchallenged. And so, he became an unlikely corroborating witness to crimes which practically all involved in perpetrating had sought to distance themselves from.
The story of his 2015 conviction in a German court serves as a starting and finishing point for the feature-length documentary The Accountant of Auschwitz, produced in Canada in 2018. Groening’s trial frames a broader story of post-war judicial indifference: after WW2, few Nazis beyond the top ranks were prosecuted. Many cases, such as those brought against guards from death camps such as Treblinka and Belzec, resulted in light sentences or acquittals. Since German law stipulated that those accused of participation in mass murder had to be shown to have been motivated by racial hatred, many escaped conviction by claiming they had simply been following orders.
The story of judicial compromise begins with the most famous war crimes court of all, at Nuremberg. There, a number of high-ranking Nazis, including Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess did actually stand trial, and some were executed. But even at that showcase of post-war reckoning, the scale of the operation was limited by practical considerations. In the film, Benjamin Ferencz, who is as of early 2020 the only surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials, recounts his role in the trial of men involved in the Einstatzgruppen Aktion, the mass-shooting of Jews and others which began in Eastern Europe in the summer of 1941:
I had 22 defendents selected by me out of 3000 mass murderers who murdered over a million people! And I could prove it. I had all their top-secret contemporaneous documents. No question about the facts. I wanted top people, planners, people who had high command, responsible positions. Their specific assignment was to murder, in cold blood, every single Jewish man, woman and child they could lay their hands on. And I knew that picking 22 defendants out of 3000 men is only a poor sampling, for the ridiculous reason that we only had 22 seats in the dock.
The Nuremberg Trials, and the many other trials in Germany and in formerly occupied countries, granted post-war Germany the sheen of accountability, while allowing millions of other former Nazis the chance to rebuild their lives and reputations in relative peace. Germans could argue that justice had been publicly and perhaps painfully administered, but public opinion tired of the international demonstration of German guilt, and rapidly escalating tensions of the Cold War left countries such as the United States and Great Britain unwilling to pursue people guilty of war crimes indefinitely, particularly as some ex-Nazis were becoming useful in the fight against communism.
An unwillingness to act, plus legal frameworks in many countries that made is near impossible to try and convict suspected war criminals, meant decades of inaction as thousands of perpetrators grew older. Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer known particularly for his involvement in the OJ Simpson trial, speaks about this in the documentary:
I still have nightmares about that famous photograph of the German soldier shooting the mother and her baby, and imagining this man lived a full and complete life, and died with his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren surrounding him, thinking he was a wonderful man. That’s the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, not the few war crimes trials.
As the film makes clear, a crucial turning point was the trial of suspected Sobibor and Treblinka death camps guard John Demjanjuk, in Israel between 1986 and 1988. Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian man who, after WW2, had emigrated to Ohio in the United States and, in the 1980s, he worked at automotive plant. His case rivaled that of Adolf Eichmann in international attention and, in some measure, controversy, and although his conviction was overturned by an Israeli appeals court on the grounds that he was not the specific guard survivors had identified him as, it prompted a change to the theory of liability in Germany’s legal system. When Demjanjuk was extradited from the United States for a second time and tried, in a German court, in 2009/10, it was as an accessory to the murder of some 27,900 people, rather than the perpetrator of specific acts of violence or murder. It was now enough simply to have been there, as interviewee Eli Rosenbaum, who led the US Department of Justice Office of Special Investigations team that investigated Demjanjuk explains:
In my country, Demjanjuk worked on an assembly line for the Ford Motor Company. And I suspect if you had asked Demjanjuk at that time, “what do you do for a living?” He would have said “I build cars.” Even though, I assume, he did one little operation, tightened one bolt or something. He did not ever build an entire car himself. But that’s what he did for a living. They were building cars. At places like Auschwitz, Sobibor, what the SS personnel there did for a living was kill innocent human beings. There was nothing else going on there.
The Demjanjuk case opened the door for the prosecution of old men and women who had served at death camps and concentration camps, whether or not there were eye-witnesses who could come forward and attest to their particular behaviour. This change in legal precedent meant that people such as the well-known Nazi hunter (and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office) Efraim Zuroff, who is interviewed in the film, could push for action against individuals previously untouched by war crimes investigators.
This policy of going after men and women in their 90s has proved controversial, and The Accountant of Auschwitz does a good job of allowing these dissenting voices in without diluting the central thesis that Oskar Groening’s prosecution was a reasonable part of a belated effort to redress the inadequacies of post-war justice. The film is at its best charting this story, and manages in ten minutes to explain the context and significance of the Demjanjuk case better than the recent Netflix series The Devil Next Door did in five episodes.
The film deals with Groening’s case a little less successfully, though. Due to legal restrictions in Germany, filmed footage of the trial itself cannot be used. Instead, the documentary makes use of material showing Groening and survivor-witnesses arriving at the improvised courtroom, interviews with the survivors and some members of the prosecution team, text quotations from some key parts of Groening’s court testimony, and some film from within the courtroom from either before or after the proceedings. The effect of this is that the viewer cannot hear Groening and judge issues such as his level of contrition for themself.
The particular issue that the film doesn’t reconcile is the apparent contradiction between Groening’s attitude as related by the survivors present to witness is in court, and the statements Groening is quoted to have made that appear towards the end of the film. Some of the survivors were clearly, and understandably, disturbed by aspects of his court testimony. A shocking story about the murder of a crying baby on the unloading ramp at Auschwitz, witnessed by Groening, serves to illustrate this. Groening describes the baby being killed, and the “noise” it was making having “stopped”, a description which leads the survivors present in the courtroom and interviewed for the film to infer a lack of empathy on his part for the Jewish victims of the camp.
What isn’t clear in the film is whether his explanations of his attitude towards what he saw at Auschwitz reflected his mindset in 1943/44, or in 2015, when the trial took place. Bill Glied, a survivor of Auschwitz and a witness at the trial, says of Groening’s court testimony: “All I would want him to say is ‘I’m sorry.’ That alone… would have meant everything, as far as I was concerned.” But the film then shifts abruptly to a more sympathetic presentation of Groening’s attitude towards his past actions. He is quoted as having said in court: “For me there is no question that I am morally guilty. I ask for forgiveness. Whether I am criminally responsible, you must decide.”
The point here is not to criticise the survivors who spoke at the trial, who have every right to view the SS perpetrator sat in the same room as them however they like. The issue is, rather, that a contradiction is introduced by the documentary makers that is not adequately explained, which attests to certain questions about Groening’s complex character and attitude towards his own culpability not being properly addressed.
More broadly, though, the film is a decent record of the trial and its participants, and includes the moment of particular controversy which saw survivor Eva Mozes-Kor publicly forgive Groening for his actions. It is particularly strong in its explanation of the failures of post-war justice, and for many excellent contributions from interviewees.
Groening was convicted as an accessory to the murder of Jews from Hungary, though he ultimately never made it to prison; an appeal was rejected by a German court and, when he died in 2018, Groening was in the process of mounting another appeal. For some, it was enough that he was convicted. Bill Glied, at the end of the film, says:
I wanted desperately for him to be convicted of this terrible act, but I have come to the conclusion that I don’t want to see him go to jail. I feel that the important thing is that he should be convicted, and that he should go back to this town, where he lived for 70 years, where everybody knew what he did and where he was. And people should see him walk on the street and say: “There goes Oskar Groening, the man who got convicted of the murder of 300,000 people.”
But Groening was an exception. He was the former-guard who could not let what he had seen and participated in be denied by his compatriots, and by speaking out he added a very different perspective to the historical record, as Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University says in the documentary:
He exposed himself, and that was a positive thing to do, clearly, a courageous thing to do. So I think that’s a very important extenuating circumstance, and, to me, that would have been sufficient reason to not prosecute him.
The Accountant of Auschwitz is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK.
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