By Daniel Tarade
You know that feeling when you have just learned something and you begin reading about it everywhere? This phenomenon is known as frequency illusion or, perhaps more popularly, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Upon noticing a phenomenon, an individual becomes unconsciously primed to notice the phenomenon again, and with each successive sighting, confirmation bias begins to kick in. It was only three weeks ago that I wrote about determinism and justice with respect to Omar Khadr, an Al Qaeda child soldier who was tortured and detained for a decade at Guantanamo Bay. Within the next weeks, I began noticing similar case studies. The most fleshed out example was outlined in the new documentary, The Accountant of Auschwitz. The documentary follows the trial of Oskar Gröning, who was an accountant during the holocaust at the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was charged with being an accessory to 300, 000 murders. So, what are the arguments on the two sides of the aisle?
There appears to be a minority contingent of individuals who argue that incarcerating former Nazi guards and accountants and cooks is not worthwhile. A proponent of this position is Peter Singer, the famous Utilitarian philosopher. Singer is featured in the documentary as one of the few individuals who believes that there is little to be gained from putting Oskar Gröning in prison. Singer argues that Gröning, aged 93 during his trial, is no longer the same individual who served as an accountant for a brutal regime at a horrific concentration camp. That, in many ways, justice is being perpetrated against the wrong individual, the right person having already vanished. In his own texts, Singer has also argued that a guard at a concentration camp, even if sickened by what surrounds them, is not in the wrong, ethically speaking, by staying at their post. Singer points out that the guard would be simply replaced by another individual, perhaps one is more harsh, more sadistic. As a utilitarian, an action is only ‘good’ in proportion to the degree it increased pleasure and happiness and vice versa. Making a moral stand and demanding a transfer can be then thought of as an empty gesture that only serves to get yourself punished or killed. However, it should be pointed out, arguments that these Nazi guards were forced to work under threat of death have been dismissed. It is stated in the documentary that there is no evidence that an individual was punished for requesting to be transferred from a concentration camp.
A separate argument against imprisoning Oskar Gröning is more in line with what I argued regarding Omar Khadr, who was groomed to be an Al Qaeda solider by his father from a young age. Gröning himself was raised by a nationalistic and authoritative father and joined the Hitler Youth when he was 12. Another, more curious example, is the upcoming trial of a woman who served as a telegraph operator at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As she was under the age of 21, she is being in a court for minors despite currently being 91. Is it unreasonable to expect that individuals raised in such an environment would come to work in a concentration camp? The Holocaust survivors who testified as witnesses at the trial of Gröning, several of which I had the great privilege of seeing talk after the viewing (Susan Pollock, Max Eisen), were generally dismissive of this argument. These individuals do concede that someone like Gröning was clearly brainwashed but held him to the standard of recognizing the brutality of the Nazi regime, which openly murdered men, women, and children. Among the Holocaust survivors featured in the documentary, Eva Kor was an exception in that she openly forgave Gröning. For Eva, it appears that forgiveness is the only path towards overcoming sadness and anger. Both Peter Singer and Eva Kor are outliers among their communities - social commentators and Holocaust survivors. Most appear quite in favour of punishing Oskar Gröning and others who played similar roles in the concentration camp machinery.
As discussed in the documentary, the ability to charge a Nazi with crimes against humanity despite not being directly involved with the killing was only possible with precedent established during the trial of John Demjanjuk, an alleged guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. Demjanjuk was found guilty of being an accessory to murder (27, 900 counts), which resulted in a new search for still living individuals who worked at concentration camps, regardless of their role. Hence the Oskar Gröning trial. The legal argument against Demjanjuk, Gröning, and others is as follows; These individuals knew that those detained in concentration camps were to be murdered. Gröning admitted as much. Thus, even if one does not administer the Zyklon B or fire up the crematoria or shoot a gun, they have knowingly contributed to a system that was designed to systematically murder. This is the main argument at play: Collective guilt. There is an additional argument regarding deterrence. By establishing the precedence of collective guilt, perhaps those who are integral to the functioning of a genocide, but not directly involved in the killing, may think twice about participating.
Oskar Gröning was a Nazi. Oskar Gröning admitted moral guilt. Oskar Gröning was found legally guilty of the crimes accused and was sentenced to four years in prison. Oskar Gröning died in 2018 without having begun his sentence. Is this justice? I appreciate the aspect of history creation imbued in the trial, particularly as it pertains to Holocaust denial. Oskar Gröning was entirely, and at times unsettlingly, open about what he participated in and witnessed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was in fact an interview with the BBC about what Gröning saw during the Holocaust, his personal attempt at battling Holocaust denial, that put him in the public spotlight and allowed him to be identified and charged with crimes against humanity. However, in his old age, Gröning was clearly no longer a threat to the public. There was no rehabilitation left to be done. What purpose would prison serve aside from enacting vengeance? Susan Pollock discussed that the length of the prison sentence was not the point but rather the trial itself was of utmost important for its role in Holocaust education. Most other survivors wanted Gröning to serve time in prison. Even if I do not agree, I cannot blame them for wishing Gröning to suffer for his actions. After all, we all act in the ways we act as a consequence of our experiences and surroundings.