Setting a legal precedent, a German court has upheld a conviction of a former SS guard whom the court said was part of the Nazi “machinery of death.”
A German federal court said Monday that it has thrown out the appeal a old former Auschwitz death camp guard against his conviction for being an accessory to murder.
The decision to uphold Oskar Groening’s conviction sets an important precedent for German prosecutors’ efforts to pursue further suspects who served at Nazi death camps and other Holocaust perpetrators.
Groening, 95, was convicted in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews and sentenced by a court in Lueneburg to four years in prison.
Groening testified at his trial that he oversaw the collection of prisoners’ belongings and ensured valuables and cash were separated to be sent to Berlin. He said he witnessed individual atrocities, but did not acknowledge participating in any crimes.
Presiding Judge Franz Kompisch ruled last year, however, that Groening was part of the “machinery of death,” helping the camp function and also collecting money stolen from the victims to help the Nazi cause, and could thus be convicted of accessory to the murders committed there.
In throwing out Groening’s appeal, the Federal Court of Justice noted his responsibilities had included keeping watch on the inmates and preventing resistance or attempts to flee by force.
It also rejected appeals from several survivors and their relatives who had joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, as is allowed under German law, and had sought a tougher conviction.
First Ruling of its Kind
It is the first time an appeals court has ruled on a conviction obtained under the logic that simply serving at a death camp, and thus helping it operate, was enough to convict someone as an accessory to the murders committed there — even if there was no evidence of involvement in a specific killing.
In 2011, former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk became the first person convicted in Germany solely for serving as a death camp guard without evidence of being involved in a specific killing. Demjanjuk, who always denied serving at the Sobibor camp, died before his appeal could be heard.
Groening has remained free pending the outcome of his appeal. His lawyer, Hans Holtermann, said he expects that prosecutors will now examine whether he is in good enough health to be taken into custody.
Holtermann said he will consider whether to take the case to Germany’s highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court.
He noted that the appeal ruling didn’t address concerns about how long it took to bring Groening to trial. Groening was previously investigated in the 1970s but authorities then shelved the case.