The Trials of Concentration Camp Guards Should Be Consigned to the Past

Published by The Huffington Post on 29/06/16

71 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Holocaust is still very much viewed as a contemporary issue. The rise of far-right parties across Europe has sparked warning bells about the encroachment of anti-Semitism into Western society. In the cultural sphere, too, the genocide of the Jewish people is still remembered. Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul, which won 2015’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, demonstrated the Holocaust still has the ability to leave us stunned.


We have also seen a renewed focus on the weeding out of Nazi sympathisers and former concentration camp workers and putting them on trial. Just last year, Oskar Groning, dubbed “The book-keeper of Auschwitz”, was given a 4 year suspended prison sentence at the age of 94.

Most recently, Reinhold Hanning, also aged 94, was found guilty of being accessory to the murder of more than 170,000 people – primarily Hungarian – and sentenced to five years in prison.

Interestingly though, the trial of Mr Hanning was concerned with more than simply his actions while serving as an SS guard at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. Rather, as one commentator put it, the trial of the former camp guard was regarded as a “last chance to establish a historical reckoning with the Nazi Holocaust.”

This sentiment was also mirrored in the argument of the prosecution. Throughout the case, the prosecution emphasised the sentencing of Hanning was a crucial mechanism for combatting Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Indeed Marcus Goldbach, a lawyer for one of the victims, emphasised the trial “is to do with throwing light on what happened, with ensuring that something like this never happens again.”

But though the majority of the Hungarian side of my family were wiped out during the Holocaust, something about this trial makes me extremely uneasy. Hanning’s lawyer attempted to argue that his client should be acquitted because he didn’t know what he was doing at the age of 18. I’d dispute this. There is no doubt that Reinhold Hanning knew what Auschwitz was built to do.

No, what makes me uncomfortable is the purpose of the trial itself. This is not about justice but about making a political statement.

Legal trials are used to determine if somebody is guilty and punish them accordingly. Consequently, the suggestion that the trial is about sending a message rather than trialling a man is extremely disturbing.

Of course, the nature of the trial would be completely different if it formed part of the Nuremberg Trials in the mid-1940s. Back then, the trials of Nazi war criminals were concerned with enacting punishment. In these 21st century trials, however, the purpose of justice has altered so as not to accord punishment, but instead to proclaim a moral conviction: in this case that the Holocaust was an abhorrent moment in history.


At Nuremberg, Mr Hanning would have been tried as an individual and condemned for his individual role in the Nazi project. But by being trialled at the age of 94 in order to shed light on the Holocaust, his status as a defendant has shifted from being held accountable for his own actions to being held accountable for the entire Holocaust.

This decision is part of a wider trend in recent history to constantly put the past on trial. Whether it be the recent trials of alleged paedophiles, Bosnian war generals or former Nazis, we now feel bound by duty to condemn historic actions so as to make a moral statement about them.

Putting an old man on trial, however, should not be the means to do so. Mr Hanning’s actions during World War Two were undoubtedly vile. But they do not warrant a distortion in our legal system whereby judges become moral arbiters, as opposed to sources of legal wisdom.

I am much more worried about the fact that, according to a study carried out by the University of Leipzig, one in ten Germans want a new Fuhrer. The best way to combat contemporary anti-Semitism isn’t to rely on the cobwebs of the past. Rather, we need to dedicate our resolve into focusing on the present and targeting its contemporary manifestations head-on.

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