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WWII trial poses uncomfortable questions of guilt and complicity for Germans

Seventy years after the end of World War II, the defeat of the Nazi regime and the liberation of the death camps, a German court has charged a 91-year old woman who worked as a radio operator at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The woman, who has not been named, is accused of accessory to murder in more than 260,000 cases between April and July 1944. The case itself – and the fact these cases still command such enormous media attention after so long – raise a number of questions about the war, the responsibility of individuals and the effect the war still has on us.

The question of how much responsibility ordinary Germans had for Nazi atrocities has haunted Germany since 1945. It has raised questions such as whether there should be such a thing as collective guilt for Germans and prompted a great deal of soul-searching over how much Germans knew about the death camps and massacres on the Eastern front. It is difficult to distinguish clearly between perpetrators, fellow travellers and bystanders – and assess their responsibility. These categories are not as clear-cut as they might appear and they reflect our own moral standards on human behaviour.

The distinction between four types of guilt offered by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in 1946, though flawed, is still instructive. First, there is criminal guilt of those individuals who committed crimes. Second, political guilt refers to the responsibility of ordinary citizens for the actions of the government that they had supported or tolerated.

Trial of Oskar Groening,the former Nazi SS officer dubbed the ‘bookkeeper of Auschwitz’. REUTERS/Axel Heimken/Pool

Moral guilt, by contrast, means that individuals have to examine their own conscience for having taken part in crimes, no matter whether they did so voluntarily or by obeying orders. Finally, metaphysical guilt relates to the lack of human solidarity shown by perpetrators and bystanders with the victims as fellow human beings by not preventing crimes against humanity.

This distinction also helps understand why some of the perpetrators are only being tried now. The definition of “criminal guilt” and the “perpetrator” changed in the course of the trial of John Demjanjuk in 2011. Until then, prosecutors of Nazi war crimes had to prove that individual perpetrators held responsibility for or had been directly involved in committing murder. Since the Demjanjuk trial, courts are no longer required to prove that individuals had actually committed murder.

By working in a death camp they were “part of the machinery of extermination”. As such they were culpable as accessories to genocide and they can face criminal charges. The Demjanjuk ruling resulted in a re-investigation of cases, which in turn led to the trial of Oskar Groening earlier this year and now the proceedings against the 91-year old radio operator at Auschwitz. This wider interpretation of criminal guilt takes into account some of the political, moral and metaphysical dimensions of guilt that Jaspers had separated from criminal guilt.

National responsibility

It also reflects a different understanding of the active role ordinary Germans played in the Third Reich. There is a greater awareness of the high levels of popular support for Hitler and Nazi policies, including the exclusion of Jews, and of how much ordinary Germans knew – or could have known – about the Holocaust.

January 1939: Hitler predicts annihilation of Jews if war occurs.

Only few Germans actually knew about the death camps in Eastern Europe. Knowledge was normally limited to the Nazi leadership and those who worked in the camps. Yet, many more Germans had at least a vague idea that Jews were being systematically slaughtered. Not only was the phrase the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” in the public domain – ordinary German soldiers and policemen were involved in the mass shootings of Jews on the Eastern front. These mass killings are estimated to account for well over a million of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Those who witnessed them shared their knowledge with friends and families at home. Reports of the Security Service showed that rumours about the mass killing of Jews were fairly widespread in Germany.

Was it possible for ordinary Germans to resist actively against the Nazi regime in the climate of fear created by the Nazi terror state? It would be ludicrous to deny that fear played a role. But at least equally important was that many Germans supported the regime and became actively involved, thereby contributing to its stability.

The exclusion of Jews from public life was widely approved or at least accepted. It provided new opportunities for Aryan Germans to advance their careers, benefit economically, or to assert their alleged superiority through “self-empowerment”, suggesting that some “fellow travellers” and “bystanders” were actively involved in exclusion. There were occasional acts of human decency and resistance such as Germans providing food or shelter for Jews or Germans even speaking out in public against the deportation of Jews. But these remained isolated incidents.

Just as interesting as the question of guilt and the possibility of resistance of the former radio operator at Auschwitz and others is the question why the recent court cases are so widely reported in the media and stimulate heated debates. Over the past 20 years, the Holocaust has become such an important part of how we remember the war and define our identities in Germany, Britain and elsewhere.

With fewer and fewer survivors around to share their gruesome stories with younger generations, there is a concern over the how the memory of the Holocaust and its lessons can be kept alive. Putting the last perpetrators on trial is also part of a quest to remember and find meaning in the Holocaust.

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