The ongoing trial in Germany of the former concentration camp guard, Oskar Groning, charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder of primarily Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz is significant for many reasons. One, however, has largely been overlooked in the press: such a trial is so exceptional and rare.
Germany's post-Holocaust democratic record and commitment to protecting the human rights of its citizens is widely known and rightfully commended. Further, in the areas of reparative justice for survivors of the Holocaust, Holocaust and human rights education, and in confronting its Nazi past through public commemoration and probing and difficult examination of its history Germany has been at the forefront of such efforts: generally open, engaged, and dedicated to learning from its past.
But less acknowledged is Germany's abysmal record at judicial accountability for Nazis. Thousands of members of the SS, many of whom were complicit in genocide and/or participated directly in it, like Groning, lived peacefully for decades after the end of the Holocaust. Some are still alive today, their crimes never prosecuted. Only a tiny, insignificant number were brought to justice.
Groning's trial at the age of 93 is a reminder of modern democratic Germany's failure to prosecute and punish perpetrators of genocide and their accomplices. It illustrates the complex and sometimes contradictory record of Germany's accounting with its past. On this most fundamental matter of holding its citizens accountable for their crimes Germany's record is one of extreme ambivalence and overwhelming denial of justice. This is a failure of both morality and international human rights law which requires criminal accountability for perpetrators of genocide and their accomplices. It has enabled impunity for thousands of perpetrators of the Holocaust and has caused continued suffering to their surviving victims.
At a recent conference on anti-Semitism Germany's Justice Minister, Heiko Maas, acknowledged these failures. Commenting on a commission created in 2012 to investigate how Germany dealt with its Nazi past in the initial decades after the Holocaust he stated, "Among other things, the purpose of the commission will be to find out why Germany's system allowed so many Nazi criminals to go free." He further acknowledged, "Even though we realized that the results won't be flattering for the German justice system, we want the historical truth to finally come to light."
Maas also expressed concern that parts of the contemporary German criminal code were authored by Nazi jurists.
For this effort the German Ministry of Justice should be commended. Although a research study cannot correct the massive injustice of failing to prosecute and punish genocide perpetrators and their accomplices it will enable Germany to honestly confront its post-Holocaust legacy.
The conclusions of the study will provide Germany with the information needed to reflect upon how and why such injustice was allowed and sustained for decades and to ensure better mechanisms for human rights accountability now and in the future in the German legal system. It will also enable a necessary public discussion of how this failure to prosecute and punish can be addressed at such a late date.
Link to the Commission: http://www.uwk-bmj.org/