Former Nazi’s involuntary role in Holocaust should not condemn him

The case of a former Nazi being prosecuted for the murders of 300,000 people blurs the line between guilt and innocence.

Before you start sending angry letters to the editor calling me a Neo-Nazi skinhead, please indulge me for a moment as I recount the story of Oskar Gröning and the reason he should not be found guilty of the murders of 300,000 people.

Gröning was born in Germany in 1921. After finishing school, he worked as a bank clerk until World War II broke out. He, like many in Germany, was drawn to the ambitious Nazi party and their promise to return Germany to power, so he joined the SS. He was assigned to do accounting work in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and he arrived unaware of the horrors happening there. In an interview with The New York Times in 2005, he recounted his first day, when he encountered the atrocities happening in the camp. He told his commanding officer, “If this is always the way things are done here, I would like to be transferred.” That request was denied. It wasn’t until two years later, in 1944, that he was transferred to the front lines of the war.

Seventy years later, at the age of 93, Gröning is being prosecuted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Over the years, he has not hidden the fact that he was an SS member who worked at Auschwitz.

However, he maintains his innocence, saying, “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.”

If Gröning can be found guilty of all of the deaths that happened at Auschwitz, despite having never directly participated in the killings, then where would the guilt end? Would the construction workers who built the buildings of Auschwitz be guilty? Would the truck drivers who delivered food and supplies to the camp be guilty? The guilt for the atrocities of the Holocaust cannot lie with the “small cogs” of the machine, who likely would have been killed themselves had they taken a stand against what the Nazis were doing. Gröning and many others like him who were simply following orders are not responsible for the Holocaust. It is those who gave the orders who should be, and (to my knowledge) have already been held responsible.

Despite maintaining his innocence, Gröning does feel guilt and remorse for his role within the Holocaust to this day.

“I feel guilty towards the Jewish people,” he said, “guilty for being part of a group that committed these crimes, even without having been one of the perpetrators myself.”

I can’t even imagine the amount of regret and remorse felt by those who, like Gröning, allowed the Holocaust to happen through passive inaction or indirect affiliation. That alone is a punishment far greater than the unnecessary possibility of Gröning spending his last few moments of life in prison.

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