Oskar Groening has been sentenced to four years in prison, a sentence the 94-year-old may not live to see the end of. In this piece published earlier this year, Guy Rundle explains why good and evil are rarely black and white, and how an Auschwitz guard did what he could — and much more than we would — to stand up to the death camps.

Oskar Groening is perhaps not the Auschwitz guard we are looking for. The 94-year-old has been hiding in plain sight in Germany for decades. He has been threatened with prosecution before, but it has never gone ahead — it has been said that the “political will was lacking”.

Groening was an attendant at Auschwitz charged with sorting and removing the luggage deposited by those who had arrived and were “selected” for immediate mass killing through gassing. Later he was responsible for taking the valuables found in such luggage and couriering them to Berlin, for deposit.

These duties have been sufficient to have him dubbed “the accountant of Auschwitz”, but this is aggrandising — a sensationalist way of putting one of the last survivors of the era in the company of Mengele or Eichmann. There is no suggestion that Groening was directly involved in killing people, hustling them into the chambers, etc, or of sadistic behaviour.

Instead he is being charged with being a co-conspirator in the deaths of 300,000 people. His trial is to involve direct testimony by Auschwitz survivors. There is no cringing attempt to muddy the waters here: Greoning acknowledges he was there, and did what they said he did. He points out that he requested a transfer three times and was finally granted one, at which point he was sent to the Ardennes on the Western Front.

And thus, he is a big problem for all of us.

From the Nuremburg trials onwards, where a defence of “obeying orders” was overturned, there has been a disjuncture at the heart of genocide justice, and especially around the Holocaust. The initial Nuremburg trials focused on key policymakers and implementers of the Holocaust, men either in, or one step down from, the core Nazi leadership.

Their “orders” defence was mostly bogus — they were committed mass murderers. But the defence itself was ruled out in any case — there was a moral duty to refuse to participate in the mass killing of people, even if your leader ordered you to do it.

The Nuremburg trials finished, and so did the process of de-Nazification in Occupied, and then, West Germany. People who had played leading roles in the Nazi apparatus slid back into business and politics. But after the trial of Eichmann, prosecutions re-commenced and began to extend to a wider group of people  — ordinary guards and subalterns who had been directly involved in the killings, commanding death squads, pushing people into chambers, etc.

This widening of the prosecution coincided with a renewed attention to the Holocaust in the 1970s. As memory of the total devastation and violence visited upon hundreds of millions in the war gave way to a nostalgic and comical view of it  — Hogan’s Heroes, Dad’s Army, Monty Python, etc — the radical evil of the Holocaust began to stand out more clearly. It is striking how little mention there is of it in contemporaneous accounts of 1944-45, even by witnesses we celebrate as truth-tellers, such as George Orwell.

Yet by the late 1970s, with books, movies and TV series —  the 1979 US series Holocaust being a landmark, denounced as exploitation at the time, but the first way in which many of us encountered it — the relationship between the war and the Holocaust reversed. The latter was the event, the war the mere pretext. The prosecutions of the foot soldiers in it — many of them brutal racist and sadistic people — increased.

But by moving to this lower level, prosecutions came into conflict with the “duress” principle of criminal law, that you were not responsible for your actions — up to and including murder — if you had a gun to your head. Duress typically applied to single crimes, but the principle buried within it was clear: you had a right to try to live, to prefer your own life. Though it might well be moral to refuse, you were not legally required to do so.

At its root, duress recognises that there is a contradiction in requiring people to judge their own survival or non-harm equally with that of others. To not see the act of preferring –– yourself, family, friends — as moral would be to impose an ideal so abstract as to undermine the possibility of rich and meaningful life, of love and obligation.

Duress was relevant to anyone within the Nazi empire, a death cult that would not take kindly to statements of conscientious objection. To refuse to serve as a guard in one camp might find you an inmate in another. Yet even so the principle of duress could not survive the sheer amount of death involved. To participate in one, 10, 100 killings to save yourself was one thing — but then 1000? Fifty thousand? At some point, a principle of refusal overrides. It has to be a crime to continue to consent, even if refusing courts your own death.

“We should be very wary of the manner in which Nazism and the Holocaust gives us the impression that we are contemplating and acting morally … “

But such a necessary principle creates an unusual separation between value and fact. It establishes as the necessary minimum of innocence, an act that most of us would fail to do. We can reasonably assume, unless wholly unrealistic about ourselves, that we might well fail the moral test — cling to life, do what we’re told. Every historical event and wealth of testing suggests this.

We’d all hope to be the refuser — and that’s what the success of “hero” movies turn on, our narcissistic magical feeling of specialness, that we would — but the evidence suggests otherwise. Prosecution of mid- and low-levels genocide functionaries is a tragic contradiction — we must refuse them the defence that arises from known human nature.

To now extend that and the burden of that contradiction to the most separated functionaries seems to have achieved a reverse effect to the commitment to common humanity that genocide prosecutions are supposed to serve. We now expect people caught up in the maw of mass killing to be vastly better than most might be in the same situation.

Assigned to gruesome, but non-lethal duties, Groening is implicitly required to at the very least have refused all duties connected to the mass killings, at which point he would have been in great peril. But the individual human is disregarded so that he can stand for the way in which we wish humanity would behave.

Yet the crucial thing in all of this is that Groening did attempt to do just that. In a situation where his life was not at risk, he requested and eventually got a transfer — and ended up in the very lethal situation of the Ardennes in late 1944. “The Battle of the Bulge” was a major German counter-attack that bogged down in the north-western corner of Europe through the winter of 1944-45. The Americans called it “the meat grinder”.

Tens of thousands of under-equipped, under-trained troops died, usually on their first few days there. Both sides stopped taking prisoners and simply killed those they captured, often in whole batches. That is where Groening ended up. That suggests that he had done everything he could reasonably do to remove himself from the Holocaust machine.

History has reversed. In the wake of WWII it was the human cost of the Ardennes campaign that provoked great horror and changed the way that troops were trained, deployed and rotated in and out. The Holocaust, revealed when those troops reached Belsen, 70 years ago this week, horrified initially, and then simply could not be slotted into consciousness for quite a while.

Now, the killing of soldiers — conscripts, boys, prisoners — has lost its horror, receded, reduced to fantasy and immersive games. So Groening’s transfer does not register with us; the Holocaust has moved to the centre of our consciousness of the century, but we cannot bring the horror of the conscript soldier’s life to mind, or find pity or solidarity within it. Part of the guff of Anzac is not imagining how men die on a beach overlooked by cliffs, shredded by artillery, disembowled by snipers.

Well, that’s Groening’s defence anyway — he has told the court that he accepts his moral guilt, and now they must determine if he is guilty at law. Perhaps he will be shown to have been more proactive in the system of corpse-robbing perfected at Auschwitz, a cog with larger teeth than he makes out.

But with witnesses called, seemingly to dramatise the facts of Auschwitz, it is difficult not to believe that there is an element of theatre to all this, and a repositioning of Germany with relation to its horrific past — and the manner in which thousands of ranking Nazis re-entered official life, with the blessing of the Allied forces. Nazism has come to serve as the sole evil, and the belated assiduous recovery of it — Berlin is now a vast memorial mausoleum, with a city in the interstices — sometimes seems designed so that discussion of all others can be avoided.

The Holocaust was an example of radical evil. It was also an example of grotesquerie beyond comprehension. Though the two aspects overlap, they are not the same thing, yet it is the grotesquerie that is often as not seized on. Groening’s job handling belongings surely cannot compare, as an act of evil, to what else was being done there, yet it puts him among the grotesque — the piles of human hair, the mountains of gold teeth.

We should be very wary of the manner in which Nazism and the Holocaust gives us the impression that we are contemplating and acting morally, when in fact we are using that sense of incontestable moral judgement — Nazism was evil, its current defenders evil or deranged – to disguise a voyeuristic fascination. Nazism’s acts lie outside the moral spectrum we could apply to the means and ends of politics, and the event of the Holocaust does not yield to understanding.

The once-seemingly endless stream of books, films and documentaries about Nazism were not released because people kept forgetting whether sadistic mass murder was bad or not. They succeeded because they were portraits of a movement that exulted will, and an embodied form of it. Regimes have been murderous, have been sadistic, have been barbaric, have been primitivist, have used science to evil aims. The Nazis fused all these together, and made each an expression of the other.

We may well be thinking about them for hundreds of years; nothing else like them may come along, though radical evil has many forms. When future historians judge our recent history and look at the three decades of needless suffering and death imposed by the IMF debt-bomb, the 12 million who died when AIDS exploded back into Africa, the five million children a year who die from water-caused diarrhoea, don’t expect to be found innocent.

In the meantime, what to do with Oskar Groening? If we had the courage we would admit that the legitimate desire to live gives one a lot of latitude when one is in hell, and that Groening’s request for a transfer to active duty, accepting the risk of death so as not to be part of a killing machine, more than meets that halfway.

But most likely we won’t, not out of fear that the guilty may avoid justice, but because we are not willing to surrender a final innocence about the triumph of good. This is not the Auschwitz guard we were looking for.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off