Better late than never? Justice for historical crimes

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionIn a 2005 BBC documentary, Mr Groening explained why he believed it was right to kill Jews during the time of the death camps

Oskar Groening is now a frail, white-haired old man, who says his task as a guard at Auschwitz was to catalogue the valuables of the Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust who were taken there by force from Nazi-occupied Europe.

The 93-year-old is accused of assisting in the murder of 300,000 victims of the Holocaust at the Auschwitz death camp between 1942 and 1944.

He says he witnessed the killing of victims in the gas chambers, but that he didn't take any part in the killing.

The trial has attracted international interest, and it raises the question of whether it is always necessary and right to prosecute such crimes - even after the passage of as many as 70 years.

Moral uncertainty

Mr Groening's trial has reopened old scars in Germany.

"In moral terms, my actions make me guilty," he told the court. "But you must decide whether I am legally guilty."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Oskar Groening as a young man in an SS uniform

So the verdict of this trial, when it comes, will deliver a powerful message to a new generation across Europe.

One of the women survivors of Auschwitz who brought the charges against Mr Groening demanded that he should make a statement to what she called the "young neo-Nazis of today" - to the Holocaust deniers - telling them that Auschwitz really did exist, and that Nazi ideology "created only losers".

That passionate outburst points to a layer of moral uncertainty beneath the solid exterior of modern Germany, which prides itself on being a Rechtsstaat - a state based on the rule of law.

For decades, it has been standard practice for German courts not to open any new Nazi-era cases unless there was decisive proof that a suspect had personally committed violent crimes of the most serious kind.

Indeed, Mr Groening and other former concentration camp guards were subjected to a preliminary investigation in the 1980s, but no case was brought then.

Ever since, Mr Groening has lived in the belief that he would never be prosecuted.

It was the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, convicted four years ago in Germany of being an accessory to mass murder at the Sobibor death camp, which at last opened the way, potentially, for dozens of new prosecutions.

But memories have now faded and convictions are likely to be few.

Most wanted Nazi war criminals

  • Gerhard Sommer - former SS officer convicted in absentia of participating in killing of 560 civilians in Italy. Last known location: Germany
  • Vladimir Katriuk - served as platoon commander of collaborationist Ukrainian police, accused of killing innocent civilians in Belarus. Last known location: Canada
  • Alfred Stoerk - former corporal convicted in absentia of participating in killing of 117 Italian prisoners of war on Greek island of Cephalonia. Last known location: Germany
  • Johann Robert Riss - former sergeant found guilty in absentia for participating in killing of 184 civilians near Padule di Fucecchio in Italy. Last known location: Germany

Simon Wiesenthal Center: Most Wanted

Burying the hatchet of history

The mental struggle of Germany's wartime generation was exemplified by Guenther Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning writer who recently died.

Grass was famous as the scourge of those who sought to cover up Germany's Nazi past.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Guenter Grass was one of Germany's most acclaimed but divisive cultural figures

Only in 2006 did he finally reveal that he had himself been recruited into Hitler's Waffen SS, which was responsible for many wartime atrocities.

The former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was two years younger than Grass - just 15 - when the war ended. And he spoke of having had "the grace of a late birth".

Still, Germany can claim to be a world champion in facing up to its past.

And events elsewhere this week have shown again how failures to bury the hatchet of history can disrupt or poison relations between neighbours.

As Armenians solemnly mark 100 years since the start of what they and many historians call the genocide of a million and a half of their people, in what was Ottoman Turkey, Turkish leaders have angrily condemned all those who use the term "genocide".

And a speech on Wednesday by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, expressing his country's remorse for World War Two, brought only an accusation of "treachery over historical issues" from Beijing.

China's complaint: that Mr Abe failed explicitly to apologise for Japan's colonial rule and aggression against other Asian countries.

Nothing, it seems, stirs present passions more than unresolved disputes about the past.

Related Topics

More on this story