Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Auschwitz Bookkeeper

I'm just about to fly off to Warsaw to lead a 2 week holocaust study trip. Therefore sorry for this very rushed flow of consciousness written on my iPhone! I just wanted to react to the Oscar Gröning "Bookkeeper of Auschwitz" case though as it's something I feel very strongly about:

Lots of people are apparently pointing out 1) he has "repented", 2) he came forward voluntarily to challenge holocaust deniers, 3) some are calling this "vengeance" rather than justice; 4) and of course he's extremely old.

They're missing a set of points.

1) and 2) These are relevant in law only to mitigation in sentencing, not to establishing culpability. What matters was whether he committed a crime then, or not. His subsequent behaviour might be admirable (I indeed think it is and he comes across as a good, decent person now) but that doesn't affect his involvement at that time. The court found he broke the law. 

He was facing 3-12 years and was sentenced to 4, ie right at the bottom end of the scale. The court therefore correctly applied the mitigating factors to reduce his sentence. End of debate. Christian bullshit about repentance and forgiveness of sins has no place in this legal discussion. He can take that nonsense up with "God" if he believes in one.

3) criminal law broadly has three  purposes: a) individual prevention of reoffending and rehabilitation, b) societal deterrence, and c) retribution. It's clear he won't be doing this again, so the first point here is irrelevant. In terms of societal deterrence however it sends out a message that even after 70 years those involved in genocide will be punished. Therefore this is good. Finally retribution (or "vengeance") is a relevant element of criminal law. It must not be the only motivating factor, but it does provide valid and necessary comfort to victims and it provides a sense of justice being done more widely. Again therefore this is good. 

4) I remember reading about a friendly Gestapo policeman in Cologne who helped an 89 year old German Jewish woman to her round up point by giving her a lift on the back of his  bicycle. She was deported to a ghetto in Poland where her life expectancy would have been days. Gröning's age now is utterly irrelevant to what he was part of back then, at least in terms of culpability (it might be relevant to sentencing). Old people and babies were murdered. He's had 70 long years of freedom and happiness that was denied to millions.

Another interesting point is the small cog in big wheel discussion. He didn't put people in gas chambers, but without the administration the camp could not have operated. As a book keeper, his exact job was to record the currency stolen from the murdered victims.  In his own words he witnessed the gas chambers and believed that the Jewish children murdered in them represented a danger to Germany because of "their blood". He chose this "cushy SS office job" voluntarily. The court found that the whole site was involved in mass murder, and therefore anyone involved was complicit in it. That's absolutely correct. 

Last of all it is never, ever, our place to forgive. We just literally do not have the standing as the wrong was not done to us. Only survivors can do that, or not, on a personal basis for the wrongs committed against them, and not against the other millions affected.  Our job as a society is to keep the memory alive and for our courts to deal with all these issues in a way set out by law. I therefore really welcome this. He will be accorded dignity and care in prison in Germany, which reflects the civilised society it has now become. The victims had no such fortune.

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