Appeals dragging in Gröning Auschwitz case
Deutsche Welle - Germany - Nazi Trials

Appeals dragging in Gröning Auschwitz case

The historic conviction of former SS guard Oskar Gröning is still not legally binding, over a year after the verdict. Now impatience is spreading among Auschwitz victims and their relatives, who acted as co-plaintiffs.

Auschwitz victims are beginning to express discontent at the length of time Germany’s Federal Court of Justice (BGH) is taking to consider appeals against one the most significant Auschwitz convictions in recent German history.

Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, was sentenced to four years in prison by a court in Lüneburg last July after being convicted of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Gröning admitted that he had stood guard as the trains of Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz in 1944 and counted money taken from their belongings to be sent on to Berlin. This was the first time that a German had been convicted in a German court for participating in the routine gassing of Jews during the Holocaust.

But both the defense and a small group of co-plaintiffs filed appeals against the decision – the defense wanted an acquittal for mitigating circumstances (unlike almost all SS guards, Gröning once appeared on TV to admit to his participation in the Holocaust), while plaintiffs wanted a longer sentence and a murder conviction, rather than merely accessory to murder.

Decades of inaction

“We’re talking about [co-plaintiffs] who are all over 80, over 90,” said Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the Berlin-based International Auschwitz Committee, which helped to find many of the Auschwitz survivors to testify in Gröning’s trial. “It has a lot of meaning for them – they would very much like to know. But the BGH is taking its time.”

“They understand the process, but they don’t understand the length of time,” Heubner told DW. “They say the German state owes us a fundamental debt – nothing happened for decades.”

Auschwitz survivors think the BGH’s decision would hold a special symbolic significance: Since it is a federal court, the German state would be sanctioning a decision made by a regional court. In effect, Heubner said, the German judiciary would for the first time recognize that anyone who served duty at a Nazi concentration camp – no matter how small their role – was part of a criminal system and therefore guilty of a crime.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the German judiciary, many of whose judges were left over from the Third Reich, was notoriously slow to seek out and prosecute Nazi criminals. As a result, Auschwitz survivors believe that time is running out to secure historic convictions – Gröning is now 95 years old, though there is no suggestion that he is unfit to be convicted.

Complex questions

But the BGH itself said it was working “intensely” on the appeals, and pointed out that it had only had access to the case documents since March, even though the appeals were filed last July. Federal state prosecutors first had to reconsider the evidence and provide their own written assessment.

“It’s always disregarded that we haven’t had the case for so long,” BGH spokeswoman Dietlind Weinland told DW. “This isn’t a case that can just be sorted out in three days. Many difficult legal questions appear in this process – the rapporteur has to make a written statement on everything. This written report is then passed on to four other judges, who must then all work on the material, and when they’ve worked on it an advisory meeting is agreed.”

Gröning’s own lawyer, Hans Holtermann, also filed appeals in the case, which the BGH also has to address. He argues that Gröning’s case was first investigated in the 1970s, which means that a regulation in the European Human Rights Convention comes into play that states an extended process must be taken into consideration as a mitigating factor for the accused.

On top of that, Holtermann argues that Gröning’s testimony as a prosecution witness against another SS guard must also be taken into account – especially since some of this testimony was used against him in his own trial.

“It’s always very difficult to predict,” Holtermann told DW. “But it seems doubtful to me that the potential decision of the BGH would have ‘groundbreaking consequences,’ as Mr Heubner said.” Holtermann believes that the principle that any kind of help in a crime – however minor – could lead to an “accessory” conviction has already been well-established in German law.