The case of Oskar Groening

“I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.”

These words were spoken yesterday by Oskar Groening on the opening day of his trial in Lüneburg. He stands accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 Jews at the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau between May and June 1944.

He told the court that his job was to count the money taken from prisoners. He admitted witnessing mass killings but denied any direct role.

All of the major news outlets are covering the case, so I’m not going to re-hash the details. Instead, I’d like to explore the question of guilt a little further.

Groening’s admission of “moral” guilt and his distinction between moral and criminal culpability taps into a debate that began in 1945 and has never been – and can never be – resolved.

In that immediate post-war period, the German nation was widely and collectively condemned as guilty. (You can read more about the debate around German collective guilt in my blog post here.)

But when journalists and newspaper readers wrote angrily of “German maniacal guilt” or the “great guilt” carried on all German shoulders, they were free of the responsibility for deciding what should happen to the people they were denouncing. To try a whole nation would be absurd and the vast majority of Germans were not guilty of a crime in the legal sense anyway. The guilt that so many Britons charged them with was not criminal, but moral.

Even trying those Nazis who would later be imprisoned or executed as war criminals was not easy. Their undeniable guilt was not of a kind recognized by existing laws and a new category of ‘Crimes against Humanity’ had to be created to deal with them.

German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote on this subject in 1946, expressing her concern that “We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level with a guilt that is beyond crime”.

It may even be impossible to convict Groening of the charges he is facing – similar charges against him in the 1980s had to be dropped as the law did not allow criminal guilt to be proven in his case. His guilt was and may still be “beyond crime”.

Yet few people would disagree that Groening should receive some punishment. Even he seems to think so.

Logic tells us that guilt should be punished. But what does punishment for moral guilt, either for a whole nation or for an individual like Groening, look like?

It’s a difficult, perhaps impossible, question to answer. But it will certainly be interesting to follow this trial as the judges seek a path through the maze of legal and moral questions ahead of them.

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