Holocaust bookkeeper found guilty. Was he really just a ‘cog in the gears’?

The 94-year-old ‘accountant of Auschwitz’ was sentenced to four years in prison Wednesday. 

Axel Heimken/Reuters
Oskar Gröning, defendant and former Nazi SS officer dubbed the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz", is pictured in the courtroom during his trial in Lueneburg, Germany, July 15, 2015. He was convicted on Wednesday of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people and was sentenced to four years in prison, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials.

Oskar Gröning was sentenced to four years in prison in a court ruling on Wednesday in Germany for complicity in mass murder.

The 94-year-old ex-Schutzstaffel (SS) soldier was part of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's paramilitary unit and worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp plundering valuables from the suitcases of Hungarian Jews as the prisoners walked off trains and into gas chambers. Yet it was only in 2011 that legal authorities in Germany began to prosecute the “cogs in the machine” – the lower level Nazi functionaries – who collectively contributed to the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

The four-year sentence, determined by the judge, exceeded the prosecution's request for Gröning to be sentenced to three-and-a-half years, leaving many surprised at the verdict. This trial marks what may be one of the last of the Nazi war trials, as most of the soldiers involved, like Gröning, are now in their 90s.

For years, legal loopholes allowed former Nazi soldiers to evade conviction for acting as accomplices to murder (among other charges) during World War II as German law required direct evidence to link the individual to the mass killings of the Holocaust. However, in 2011, a legal precedent was set when John Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison by a Munich court for serving as a Nazi auxiliary guard at Sobibor, a death camp in Eastern Poland.

Demjanjuk’s conviction "was a game-changer because it allows for the prosecution of people who would otherwise not have been prosecuted," Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told National Geographic in 2013.

About 6,500 SS guards served at Auschwitz, and 49 have been convicted as of December 2014, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

In a 2005 interview with Der Spiegel magazine, Gröning said that when he returned home after being released from a British prisoner of war camp, he requested that his wife not ask him about his time during the Second World War. The former SS officer worked at the German extermination camp from September 1942 to October 1944. During his time working there, he says that he became wary of the system when he witnessed a fellow officer kill a baby in front of him. He requested to be transferred from Auschwitz three times before his request was granted.   

When interviewers asked if he was guilty, he said, "Guilt really has to do with actions, and because I believe that I was not an active perpetrator, I don't believe that I am guilty.... Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a 'small cog in the gears.' If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent."

In the same interview, he said, "I feel guilty towards the Jewish people, guilty for being part of a group that committed these crimes, even without having been one of the perpetrators myself. I ask for forgiveness from the Jewish people. And I ask God for forgiveness." He reiterated this appeal on July 1, during the trial.

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