Oskar Groening: German court upholds 'bookkeeper of Auschwitz' conviction

The nonagenarian has been sentenced to spend the next four years in jail for his role in the murder of 300,000 people in the 1930s and 40s. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas applauded the decision saying, 'It's never too late for justice.'

Axel Heimken/AP/File
SS sergeant Oskar Groening listens to the verdict of his trial at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany, July 15, 2015. A German federal court has upheld the conviction for being an accessory to murder of the 95-year-old former SS sergeant who served at the Auschwitz death camp, his lawyer said Monday.

Germany's highest court has rejected an appeal filed by a man known as the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz," who was sentenced last year to four years in prison for his role in the murder of 300,000 people at the Nazi death camp.

It said it rejected the appeal of Oskar Groening, 95, who was convicted in July 2015 of aiding and abetting the murders, as well as appeals filed by several other people who argued that Mr. Groening should have been convicted of the more serious charge of being an "accomplice" to murders.

"The conviction is therefore now legally binding," the Federal Court of Justice said in a statement. It said it took the decision in September but only made it public on Monday.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas welcomed the decision. "It is never too late for justice," Mr. Maas said in a statement. "When it comes to the legal processing of Auschwitz there can also never be an end."

Groening, a former Nazi SS officer, did not kill anyone himself while working at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, but the lower court ruled that he helped support those responsible for mass murder through various actions, including by sorting bank notes seized from trainloads of arriving Jews.

Groening's lawyers had argued that because he did not directly participate in the killings, he could not be held accountable, a defense that has lost merit in recent years, as the Christian Science Monitor's Molly Jackson reported earlier this year.

Similar defense arguments, however, have lost their effect since 2011, when the trial of John Demjanjuk set a powerful precedent for future Holocaust murder trials. Mr. Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who allegedly worked at Nazi death camps in Germany and occupied Poland, then later moved to the United States, was convicted for his involvement despite a lack of evidence for any particular murder — the limitation that had made it difficult for decades to prosecute anyone but top leaders who actually directed operations. Demjanjuk died as he was appealing the ruling.

"At a place that existed solely for the purpose of murdering people, anyone who was involved in carrying out that process was an accessory to the murder that was happening there," Dr. Elizabeth White, a historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who helped the US Department of Justice investigate Demjanjuk under immigration law, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. 

Hans Holtermann, Groening's attorney, told Reuters there was no possibility of a further appeal, but he was studying whether to file a complaint with Germany's constitutional court given that Groening had been under investigation since 1977.

"We think that should have been taken into consideration," he said.

The trial went to the heart of the question of whether people who were minor participants in the Nazi atrocities, but did not actively participate in the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, were themselves guilty.

The now frail Groening admitted moral guilt but said it was up to the court to decide whether he was legally guilty. During the trial he said he could only ask God to forgive him as he was not entitled to ask this of victims of the Holocaust.

Legal experts said the court's decision could set a precedent for the case of Reinhold Hanning, another former SS officer who was convicted in June for his role in the murder of at least 170,000 people at the concentration camp.

The Federal Court of Justice said it had not yet received any appeal relating to his case. A spokeswoman said an appeal was likely still being considered by federal prosecutors.

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