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.

The changing significance of Auschwitz – and what we must do now

It is 70 years today since the liberation by the Soviet Red Army of Auschwitz, a word now synonymous with the Nazi atrocities and specifically with the death of six million Jews.

At the time, however, the liberation of Auschwitz made little impression on the British public. It was not until late April 1945, when British and American troops marching across Germany discovered the atrocities in Buchenwald and Belsen concentration camps, that the truth took hold. First-hand reports quickly made their way into the British press and any remaining disbelief was soon dispelled and outrage took its place.

For the next years and decades, it was Belsen, liberated by British troops, that was synonymous with Nazi atrocities for the British people – Auschwitz barely registered.

Furthermore, and hard as it is to believe, the Jewish identity of the majority of the victims – the result of the Nazi’s extermination policy – was barely mentioned.

There were several reasons for this, not least the unstable political situation in Palestine where British occupiers were in conflict with the Jewish resistance. Arousing sympathy among the British public for the Jewish people at that time would have been counter-productive.

However, the discoveries in Belsen and Buchenwald did trigger an explosion of debate and discussion in the political sphere, in the press and in the street. Voices from the right were keen to stress the responsibility, if not guilt, of the whole German nation for these crimes. They mostly ignored the national, ethnic, religious or sexual identities of the victims, some of whom were in fact German and would therefore undermine their claim that all Germans were guilty.

Figures on the left were keen to use the discoveries at Buchenwald to castigate those (mostly on the right) who had defended Nazism and sought to appease Hitler in the 1930s when Buchenwald was already a well-established camp for political prisoners. ‘Look’, they said, ‘we failed to stop them so the Nazis just carried on imprisoning and torturing those who didn’t agree with them. We carry our own share of blame now too.’ This argument failed to address the changed role of Buchenwald after 1942 and ignored its millions of Jewish prisoners.

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard
http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

The left also spent their time challenging the idea that the German nation was collectively responsible for the Nazi crimes by pointing out that some of the victims were German.

In all this political wrangling, the significance of the Jewish identity of six million of the victims was buried and the chance to challenge widespread anti-Semitism in Britain was lost.

The images emerging from Belsen enraged and shocked the British public. Numerous letters were published in the Evening Standard deploring the “terrible crimes”, “the unspeakable horrors” and “the barbarities”. The time was ripe for endemic anti-Semitism in Britain to be challenged by focusing attention on the horrors to which such groundless prejudice could lead. Yet most reports failed to mention that most victims were Jewish and the chance slipped by.

Unlike prejudice against black minorities or the gay and lesbian community, which, in the post-war decades, was confronted and stigmatised through powerful mass movements, anti-Semitism has been allowed to rumble on, unchecked. The undeniable rise of verbal and violent expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe over the last few months and years testifies to this fact, although you will of course find few Britons who deny that the Nazis’ Final Solution was horrific and wrong. This hypocrisy must be confronted.

It is expected that 15,000 Jews will leave France for Israel in the wake of the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. The numbers of British Jews choosing to emigrate has also been rising over the last two years.

The opportunity was missed in 1945 for a concerted challenge to the prevailing anti-Semitic mood in Britain. The time is ripe for such a challenge now and must not be missed again.

Germany: Memories of a Nation – a promising exhibition that fails to deliver

Last week, I paid my (fairly obligatory) visit to the British Museum exhibition, “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, the accompaniment to Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series which I wrote about here.

Reaction to the exhibition has been mixed, often fairly critical. Charges are levelled against mundane objects with “large wodge[s] of text”, the cramped layout and the lack of female figures. My objection to the focus on elite figures and high culture in MacGregor’s radio series also applies to the exhibition.

At the sharp end of many reviews is the section dealing with the Holocaust – although there is a fair amount of praise for this bit too. Following several rooms of traditional, even old-fashioned, exhibiting techniques – old objects in glass cases with bits of explanatory text – you come to a large alcove whose walls are mostly blank. There’s a bench to sit on – the only one in the whole exhibition – and the white walls are broken only by a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp and two small segments of text.

Section on the Holocaust - British Museum exhibition - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Section on the Holocaust

You’re taken aback by the juxtaposition. The blankness after the artefact-filled displays of the previous room is unnerving. There are no words or objects that can guide you comfortably through this bit of history, it seems to say. And indeed, that’s exactly what it does say – the Holocaust “poses an insoluble question for Germany and the world”, we are told. “There is no narrative that can encompass it”. The text introducing the whole room reiterates this viewpoint. We read that the Nazis “left a dark memory that can be neither avoided nor adequately explained”.

The language is echoed in reviews praising the exhibition’s acknowledgement that this part of German history is indeed “unpalatable” and “unspeakable”. Such language, filled with negations – insoluble, neither/nor, no narrative, unpalatable, unspeakable – is now in common usage with regard to the Holocaust. I can understand its place in discussions regarding the emotional and personal engagement with the Nazi past that is faced by German individuals and the German nation – a struggle that has its very own German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Yet the task of an exhibition such as this is neither emotional nor personal but historiographical. And the events, ideological movements and widespread prejudices that led to the Nazi atrocities are explicable and can (and should) be discussed. To avoid doing so and instead simply offer a place to sit and reflect seems like a cop-out, a neat way to evade the perhaps even more unpalatable truth that this segment of the past can be “adequately explained” as part of a historical narrative.

There is a danger in suggesting, as this exhibition does both implicitly and explicitly, that this part of history is entirely different to the rest of it, that while the rest can be neatly manifested in an eclectic array of books and paintings, clocks and hats, silverware and wetsuits, the Holocaust can be manifested in neither object nor word.

This both allows the Nazi past to go unaddressed – and this exhibition was surely a great chance to present a more considered narrative than we are offered in popular novels and films – and undermines the complexities, nuances and suffering present in the rest of German history. Nearly half of the German states’ male population were killed during the Thirty Years War and villages that survived the marauding armies took a century to recover. The fluidity of national borders that once encompassed Kaliningrad, Prague and Strasbourg caused untold disruption, confusion and crises of identity. These human consequences remain concealed in an exhibition that focuses mainly on historical fact.

There is no denying that the Holocaust is a unique event in German history and its depiction in an exhibition deserves careful consideration. But the same could be said of most of German history, especially the parts thought worthy of a place in the British Museum. No part of Germany’s narrative (or the narrative of any nation) is free of complexities or controversy, and there is little that is free of emotional resonance.

Perhaps, then, we should confront the idea that no part of history can be explained by a numbered artefact and a paragraph of text. Most of us learn from a young age how to look at an old vase or piece of bone in a glass cabinet, skim some text and move on, our eyes glazing over as object follows object. What’s good about the Holocaust section – that it makes us stop and think – should be replicated in the whole exhibition. Although its technique of blankness and near silence might not be received too well among the fee-paying visitors.

The exhibition shop at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

The exhibition shop

The exhibition shop provided a final disappointment. Filled with sausage-eating, beer-drinking rubber ducks, dachshund cufflinks, VW campervan money boxes and 3D Neuschwanstein jigsaws, it reverts to and takes commercial advantage of customary stereotypes, none of which featured in the undeniably stimulating and stereotype-free exhibition.

Bavarian rubber ducks on sale at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Bavarian rubber ducks

It’s a shame that the final impression is one of kitschig beer mugs and plastic Beetles. The shop, like the exhibition, was ripe with potential to challenge conventional ideas about Germany with an exciting, thought-provoking narrative. In my view, both fail to deliver.