Alex Constantine - July 16, 2015
- 94-year-old former Nazi officer was sentenced to four years behind bars
- He was guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 Jews in Auschwitz
- Groening had accepted moral responsibility but denied any crime
- His lawyers say they will be appealing, so he may never serve jail time
Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors have welcomed the four-year jail term given to the 'Bookkeeper of Auschwitz', saying there is 'no statute of limitation' for those who inflicted Nazi horrors during the Second World War.
Following a three-month trial at a German Court, former SS officer Oskar Groening was found guilty of facilitating the mass murder of 3,000 people.
The sentence concludes a three-month trial which has heard harrowing testimony from the victims of the Nazis' largest and most infamous death camp.
Oskar Groening, 94, has been sentenced to four years in jail this morning after being found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews in Auschwitz between May and June 1944,
However, the judge today swept Groening's argument aside, accepting the prosecution's case that because Groening was essential to the running of the camp, he was partially responsible for the acts committed there
Reacting to the verdict, Dr Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress, said the verdict and trial had been of 'historic significance'.
He said: 'Although more than 70 years have passed since the liberation of the Nazi death camps, this trial reminds us that there is no statute of limitations for those responsible for Nazi horrors and demonstrates the constant need to guard against anti-Semitism, racism and hate.
'We welcome the opportunity it provides for us to educate a generation that is all too distant from the horrors of the Holocaust.'
While none of the victims were able to recall seeing Groening at the camp, he was charged with being accessory to the killings because he was essential to the running of Auschwitz.
However the judge today swept that argument aside, handing Groening a sentence that means the frail 94-year-old will likely die behind bars.
Judge Franz Kompisch told Groening he was 'guilty of accessory to murder in 300,000 legally connected cases' of Jews sent to the gas chambers from May to July 1944.
He said Groening had willingly taken a 'safe desk job' in 'a machinery designed entirely for the killing of humans', a system that was 'inhumane and all but unbearable for the human psyche'.
The four year sentence, which is slightly longer than the three and a half years recommended by the prosecution, will likely mean that frail Groening will die behind bars.
The court has been forced to sit for just three hours a day after Groening had to be taken to hospital midway through his trial, and has been carried into the courtroom at the start of each day.
However his lawyers have announced they intend to appeal the verdict, raising the prospect that Groening may never see the inside of a cell.
Holocaust survivors and victims' relatives who were co-plaintiffs welcomed the verdict, calling it a 'very late step toward justice'.
In a joint statement, they said: 'SS members such as Groening who took part in the murder of our families have created lifelong and unbearable suffering for us.
'Neither the criminal proceedings nor the words of the accused can alleviate this suffering. But it gives us satisfaction that now the perpetrators cannot evade prosecution as long as they live.'
Meanwhile Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust added: 'The conviction of Oskar Groening for his actions sends an unequivocal message that, although he may not have led or directly participated in the atrocities at Auschwitz, he was clearly an accessory to the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.
'By being the “bookkeeper” of Auschwitz, he assisted in and facilitated the murder of 300,000 Jewish men, women and children and it is right that he has now been held legally accountable for this.'
As the proceedings concluded yesterday with the defence calling for an acquittal, Groening seized a last opportunity to address the judges.
Begging for mercy, he stated he was 'very sorry' for his time stationed at the Nazi death camp, adding: 'No one should have taken part in Auschwitz.'
'I know that. I sincerely regret not having lived up to this realisation earlier and more consistently. I am very sorry,' he said, his voice wavering.
Groening was accused of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder in the cases of deported Hungarian Jews sent to the gas chambers between May and July 1944.
Groening served as a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, sorting and counting the money taken from those killed or used as slave labour, collecting cash in different European currencies, and shipping it back to his Nazi bosses in Berlin.
He testified in April and again this month that he was so horrified by the crimes he witnessed at the camp after his arrival in 1942 that he appealed three times to his superiors for a transfer to the front, which was not granted until Autumn 1944.
Last week public prosecutors said they were seeking three and a half years' jail for Groening based on the 'nearly incomprehensible number of victims', but mitigated by 'the limited contribution of the accused' to their deaths.
They argued that on at least three occasions, Groening performed 'ramp duty', processing deportees as they arrived in cattle cars at the extermination and forced labour camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In previous interviews, he has told how he witnessed an SS officer picking up a baby left on the station platform by the foot, before beating it to death on the side of a nearby truck.
However, he maintained that he was only on the platform to safeguard people's valuables, and was not involved in choosing who was sent to the gas chambers.
By keeping the confiscated belongings of the previous arrivals out of the sight of the new prisoners, state attorneys argued, he averted panic breaking out and facilitated the smoother operation of Auschwitz's killing machine.
Demonstrators wait outside court in Lunenburg with a banner reading 'Justice for the victims of Auschwitz'
Today's verdict brings to a close a three and a half month trial which heard harrowing testimony from the survivors of the Nazi's biggest and most infamous death camp (picutred, reporters outside court)
However one of Groening's two defence attorneys, Hans Holtermann, argued Tuesday that the state had failed to prove that he 'aided and abetted a crime'.
'Mr Groening was never an accessory to the Holocaust, neither with his presence at the ramp nor by transferring and counting money nor with any other actions, at least not in any legal sense,' he said.
Groening's defence team asked the judges to take into account his deteriorating health but also his willingness to testify in detail about his time in Auschwitz, which many defendants in similar cases had refused to do.
The court heard harrowing testimony by more than a dozen Holocaust survivors, who are also co-plaintiffs in the case.
While some of the elderly witnesses expressed disappointment that Groening failed to formally apologise to them, others have spoken of a kind of catharsis from having their day in court.
'When I leave Lueneburg, I will have made my peace with any outcome,' Toronto-based survivor Hedy Bohm, 87, said last week.
Groening had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.
But the legal foundation for prosecuting ex-Nazis changed in 2011 with the German trial of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.
While previously courts had punished defendants for individual atrocities, Demjanjuk was convicted solely on the basis of having worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.
The head of the federal office investigating Nazi era crimes, Kurt Schrimm, told the Bild newspaper this month that other probes of former concentration camp guards were still ongoing, although 'many had to be terminated because the accused had died or were no longer capable of standing trial'.
Some 1.1 million people, most of them European Jews, perished between 1940 and 1945 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp before it was liberated by Soviet forces.
Bookkeeper of Auschwitz who spent the war getting drunk on vodka pilfered from his victims: How Oskar Groening went from the son of a textile worker to a Nazi death camp officer
Withered and grey haired, his clouded eyes filled with an a mixture of fear and confusion, 94-year-old Oskar Groening has cut a pathetic figure during his time in court.
On trial as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews in Auschwtiz, it is difficult to connect the frail man who has appeared in Lunenberg with the SS Officer who served as the camp's bookkeeper.
But Groening not only worked in the Nazi's largest death camp, he thrived there, enjoying an easy life behind a desk, filling himself with extra rations and alcohol pilfered from those sent there to die.
And while he kept his hands clean of the actual business of mass murder, twice telling his superiors he found it distasteful, he was in no doubt at the time that the killing was justified.
Born in 1921 in Lower Saxony, Groening was the son of a textile worker father and housekeeper mother who died when he was four years old.
The family also had a military history, as Groening's grandfather had served in an elite regiment of troops from the Duchy of Brunswick.
According to an interview with historian Laurence Rees, Groening had a picture of his grandfather sitting astride a horse playing a trumpet that he would stare at for hours as a young boy, saying he was 'fascinated' by it.
Raised in a conservative household, radical politics entered Groening's life at a young age as his father joined far-right group Stahlhelm - meaning Steel Helmet - in the wake of Germany's defeat in the First World War.
Groening himself joined Stahlhelm's youth wing only a few years later, in the early 1930s, before swapping to the Hitler Youth after the Nazi's seized power in 1933.
In his book, Auschwitz: A New History, Rees explains how Groening eagerly took part burning books 'written by Jews or other degenerates'.
Groening finished school with top marks aged 17, and began working as a bank clerk before the outbreak of war just months later.
With the image of his grandfather mounted on a horse burned into his memory, Groening resolved to join an elite unit of the new German military, and settled on the Waffen SS.
Accepted into the unit, Groening spent a year there before being ordered to report to Berlin for a special duty before being taken to Auschwitz.
Groening, then just 21, had never heard of the place, though the name would come to consume the rest of his life.
According to Rees, Groening's first night in the camp was pleasant. Blissfully unaware of its true purpose, he was welcomed by his fellow SS officers, who introduced him to the stockpile of extra rations given to those stationed there, and even offered him rum and vodka.
The following day, Groening was assigned to the administrative branch of the camp, the position that would earn him his nickname, the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.
Despite his role in keeping the camp organised, it was some time before he learned that its true purpose was to execute, and not just detain, prisoners.
Speaking to Der Spiegel back in 2005 of the first time he saw prisoners brought to the camp, Groening recalled: 'A new shipment had arrived. I had been assigned to ramp duty, and it was my job to guard the luggage.
'The Jews had already been taken away. The ground in front of me was littered with junk, left-over belongings. Suddenly I heard a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags.
'I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby's head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent.'
The sight of such barbarity was enough to motivate Groening to complain to his superior, an act he repeated several months later after witnessing the horror of the gas chambers for the first time.
But despite his revulsion, Groening never opposed killing the Jews - only protesting that more humane methods should be used.
However, he was told to forget what he had seen, and his requests for a transfer away from the camp to a combat role were turned down.
Faced with the reality of having to stay in the camp, Groening instead focused on making his life as comfortable as possible.
Speaking to Rees, Groening recalled: 'We didn't get drunk every day - but it did happen. We'd go to bed drunk, and if someone was too lazy to turn off the light they'd shoot at it - nobody said anything.
'Auschwitz main camp was like a small town. There was a canteen, a cinema, a theatre with regular performances. There was a sports club of which I was a member. There were dances.
'Apart from the fact that there were pigs who fulfil their personal drives the special situation at Auschwitz led to friendships which, I still say today, I think back on with joy.'
Having cocooned himself away from the worst aspects of the camp, Groening carried out his 'routine' job there until 1944, when his transfer request was accepted.
He was sent to fight in the Ardennes, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's failed last-ditch offensive aimed at driving the Allies out of Europe.
Groening was first wounded during the fighting, then eventually captured by the British after his unit surrendered to them on June 10, 1945.
From there he was imprisoned for a time in a concentration camp, a bitter irony for a man whop helped run the most infamous camp of all, before being sent to the UK.
He worked here for many years as a forced labourer before returning to his home country to work in a glass factory, eventually becoming a manager.
While he never spoke of his time at the camp, once flying into a rage at his family after they mentioned it in passing, he also never sought to hide it - refusing to change his name or looks, unlike some who had worked there.
Recalling his time at the Nazi's largest and most brutal execution camp, Groening once said the 'special situation' there allowed him to make friendships 'I think back on with joy'
As he had not participated directly in the killings, he was confident he would never be prosecuted for what happened there, and once more went about making his life as comfortable as possible.
However, all that changed in 2009 with the prosecution of Ukranian-born Nazi guard John Demjanjuk, who had served at a camp in Treblinka where he was known as 'Ivan the Terrible'.
In that case prosecutors argued that, while there was no evidence Demjanjuk had actively participated in killing people, he could be charged with accessory to murder because he had helped to run the base.
The judges's decision in that case ultimately led to Groening being charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, more than 70 years after his crimes took place.