Following Orders

Demented, Dying, but on Trial, the Last Nazis Reveal Their True Evil

The trial of the SS bookkeeper from Auschwitz exposes not only the banality but the bean-counting that was integral to the Holocaust.

Ronny Hartmann/POOL/Reuters

As the trial of Oskar Gröning, the 93-year-old bookkeeper of Auschwitz, drags on, the old man appears to be fading fast.

Week after week the German court reveals in graphic detail the smoothly run murder machinery behind “the final solution,” the Nazi effort to exterminate Europe’s Jews. But will Oskar Gröning’s trial have the chance to come to its natural conclusion now that he is nearing the end of his own life? In deference to his frailty, some court sessions have been canceled, and each new one is limited to just three hours, meaning the proceedings could go on until November, at least, assuming he lives that long.

If it is up to Gröning, the trial must go on. Ever the punctilious bookkeeper, according to his lawyer, he is “anxious to bring the process to its ‘proper’ completion.”

Yet, judging from all that he has said and done in the past and at the trial, it is unlikely that Gröning will feel the remorse that anyone else listening to the testimony would expect. We have learned a lot over the years about what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, but the Gröning case is about the bean-counting of horror: the work of a public servant committed to the Nazi philosophy and convinced, to this day, that his role in the systematic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people was simply a matter of his performing his duty to his government in the midst of an all-out war.

Gröning is charged, specifically, with complicity in the murder of 300,000 souls, mainly Hungarian Jews, which took place in the concentration camp Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. Altogether, 1.3 million died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland during the war.

Until recently, it seemed as if the last Nazis and collaborators involved with the Holocaust might well escape through loopholes in the law or into the oblivion of old age, decrepitude and dementia, if not death. Some countries, notably Austria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine have consistently failed to hold any Holocaust perpetrators accountable. But, encouraged by the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, German courts have changed their legal strategies in recent years, opening the way, as the center puts it, “for the conviction of practically any person who served either in a Nazi death camp or in the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units)” that carried out the genocide. The German Central Office for the Clarification of Nazi Crimes has recommended that several dozen suspects from the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek death camps be prosecuted.

“During the past 14 years, at least 102 convictions against Nazi war criminals have been obtained, at least 98 new indictments have been filed, and well over 3,500 new investigations have been initiated,” according to the Wiesenthal Center’s director, Efraim Zuroff. “Despite the somewhat prevalent assumption that it is too late to bring Nazi murderers to justice, the figures clearly prove otherwise, and we are trying to ensure that at least several of these criminals will be brought to trial during the coming years.”

Zuroff insists it’s not the age of the suspects that poses the biggest problem, “it is the lack of political will, more than anything else, that has hindered the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.”

But, for all that, time is running out, as a look at the Wiesenthal Center’s most-wanted list makes clear:

Number one on it, the Nazi Gerhard Sommer, allegedly slaughtered 560 civilians, including 100 children, in the Italian village of Sant’ Anna de Stazzema in August 1944. But last week the Germans announced they would halt Sommer’s prosecution because of his dementia.

Number two on the list, Vladimir Katriuk from Belarus, has been living in Canada. He was charged just this month with organizing “The Slaughter of Chatyn,” a massacre in which 149 Belarusian villagers were herded into a barn and burned alive. But Katriuk died on Friday.

Number three, Alfred Stark, was convicted in absentia by an Italian court and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Italian prisoners of war in Kefalonia, Greece. But even if he were to be extradited from Germany, he would not have to serve jail time because of his age.

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Number four, Johan Robert Riss, was found guilty by an Italian court, in absentia, for the murder of civilians near the village of Padule de Fucecchio, but continues to live freely in Germany.

The fifth, sixth and seventh “most-wanted” murderers are unnamed. And then, at number eight on the list, is Oskar Gröning, accused as an “accessory to murder of Hungarian Jews.”

Unlike most other suspects, Gröning has never denied that he served with the elite Nazi SS unit that ran Auschwitz and Birkenau. And he has gained some credit and even sympathy because, in the face of a growing trend of Holocaust denial in Europe, he gave a lengthy interview to the BBC, subsequently used in a documentary and a book, confirming the epic scale of the genocide that took place at the camp where he served.

Indeed, during the early days of the court’s proceedings, Eva Mozes Kor, a holocaust survivor and one of the plaintiffs in the case, publicly embraced Gröning and said on German television that she believed the case should not have come to court at all.

But Kor’s belief that her forgiveness will help in the fight against Neo-Nazi holocaust deniers is not shared by her fellow plaintiffs, who say Gröning needs to be prosecuted regardless: “We cannot forgive Mr. Gröning his participation in the murder of our relatives and another 299,000 people,” the other plaintiffs said through their lawyer, “especially since he feels free from any legal guilt.”

And that is exactly what makes Gröning’s case so deeply disturbing. He seems, almost, to expect exoneration. Asked on the courthouse steps what the likely verdict will be, he said, “Acquittal, or so…I don’t know.”

Looking more specifically at what Gröning has said in different interviews and in court may shed some light on the mind of a man capable of functioning, as he said, “normally” in the man-made hell called Auschwitz.

It wasn’t until October 1940, well into the war, that a young Gröning volunteered for the elite unit of the Waffen SS. By his own admission he did so for ideological reasons. Raised as a true Hitler supporter, he saw himself in the mold of his grandfather, who had fought for the Fatherland in World War One.

“We wanted to be part of a smart unit that could look down a little on the other soldiers,” Gröning told the German court. “The SS was a caste of its own and we wanted to belong to it.”

In 1942, Gröning was assigned to Auschwitz. He claims that at the time he didn’t know it was a well-oiled mass-murder machine. “The main camp was like a little town,” Gröning recalled in his interview with BBC filmmaker Laurence Rees. “There was a cinema and theater with regular performances.” Concentration camp staffers had their own facilities, much enjoyed by senior officers. There even was an Auschwitz Sports Club, of which Gröning was an “enthusiastic” member. “Apart from the fact that there were swine who gave full reign to their passions—you had that kind of people,” Gröning admitted, “the special situation [in Auschwitz] led to friendships that to this day I say I remember with joy.”

Shortly after he arrived, Gröning was assigned to supervise the luggage collection from incoming transports. Gröning, responsible for counting the money and shipping it to Berlin headquarters, has spoken at the trial about his impressions: “You would be surprised to know with how many valuables the Jews arrived there.” As testimony from survivors makes clear, they had brought as much of their wealth as they could in the deluded hope they might thus save their lives.

In Rees’s 2007 book, Their Darkest Hour, Rees describes the camp and its bookkeeper in detail, and reveals Gröning’s concern, as a good Nazi, that the wealth and supposed decadence of the Jews being slaughtered would somehow rub off on him and his fellow Aryan officers.

Gröning regrets, for instance, the lack of military drill for the German soldiers at Auschwitz: “A system like that would certainly become weak.” He says, “there were people who made themselves comfortable with silk sheets to sleep in… Whatever the Jews brought with them.” Gröning soon learned to spot who had money and who did not. “With the travelling Poles there was nothing to be found,” he recalled, “but the Hungarian, we knew, had big bacon.”

When asked by the judge at the trial if he didn’t wonder to whom this money belonged, Gröning responded by the book—the Nazi book: “It belonged to the State, the Jews had to hand it in.”

“Were there any grounds for that?” the judge asked.

“They didn’t need it anymore,” Gröning said matter-of-factly.

Rees’s interview gives a chilling insight into the mind of a man who seems utterly unburdened by empathy. “It didn’t occur to him to complain about the mass extermination,” Rees comments, he only said that: “If it was necessary to exterminate the Jews, then at least it should happen according to certain rules.”

Ever pragmatic and practical, Gröning complained to his superiors and asked to be transferred to another department after witnessing one particular act of violence on the Auschwitz train platform. It involved a young baby, left by its mother on the ramp. It was lying there dressed in rags and it was crying, Gröning told Thorsten Fuchs of the Hannoversche Allgemeinen Zeitung about six months ago (PDF). He said an SS man, or “comrade,” as he called him in court, “picked up the child by its feet and slammed it into the iron strut of a truck until it was dead.” Gröning said the image still haunts him at night.

Yet following that gruesome scene, Gröning continued to show the same pathological lack of empathy about the unspeakable violence against men, women and children in the course of their mass extermination.

“In a concentration camp it is like that,” Gröning said as he sketched for the court the daily routine. Birkenau, the newer of the two facilities at Auschwitz, was “normal and clean,” according to Gröning. As the new arrivals came in, they stood in rows of five. “The devil knows who thought that up,” said Gröning. Order was kept by prisoners. “It was their job, in their own interest,” said Gröning. “There were pay and perks like bacon, food, whores. Things ran best with order.” Luggage was not left lying around, but meticulously inventoried. “That’s how 5,000 people could be ‘taken care of’ in 24 hours,” said Gröning.

This was the kind of mentality made famous by Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, after he was tracked down in Argentina, with the help of Simon Wiesenthal, then abducted in 1960 and put on trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann was just following orders, he said. His mental framework, like Gröning’s, objectified and justified “necessary evils” like the supposed need to kill the Jews: a dirty job that simply had to be done.

That is how Gröning, today, avoids personal responsibility: by seeing his presence and actions as factual, reasonable, proportionate, not “excessive.”

That explains why, in the interview with Fuchs six months ago, Gröning said: “I don’t feel guilty, I never even gave someone a smack on the cheek.” He was an innocent, a small insignificant “cog” caught up in the big machinery of war. Gröning frowns on the emotions displayed by some of his colleagues, like the “swine that give full reign to their passions.” He’s not like that, he just does what he’s told, but he doesn’t enjoy inflicting pain.

In another example that demonstrates his incapacity to contextualize, Gröning told Fuchs how he was helping fellow SS men find escaped prisoners when he arrived at a barracks. There he witnessed an SS man throwing Zyklon B, the gas used for mass killing, down a chute. Inside he heard cries that became louder until suddenly they stopped. When Fuchs asked him why the death of a baby bothered him, but not the many in the gas chambers, Gröning explained: “For me, it was no different from what was happening at the front. What happened in Auschwitz, I thought was right. That’s what I was taught from the age of ten onward.” Only having to witness the excesses, the bashing to death of an infant, was too much for him. That’s why he repeatedly asked for the transfer.

The last time he did so, he no longer believed Germany was going to win the war. He knew his employment in Auschwitz could incriminate him. “I thought to myself,” Gröning confided to Fuchs, “that it would have consequences. Not only for the executives, also for the others.”

It is clear that Gröning, even that early on, thought that what he had been doing was probably criminal. What remains unclear is to what extent Gröning is haunted by the intrinsic evil of the murderous machinery of which he formed a part. “It is an unsightly memory,” Gröning admitted to Fuchs. But the more you follow his testimony, the more the impression of a rather sympathetic old fellow wanting to atone for his youthful sins gives way to another perception. One realizes that this calm old man mastered the art of rationalizing atrocity. And surely that is the greatest crime of all, even if, today, we have learned in the Balkans, in Africa, in the Middle East, that it remains a common one.