Coming to DVD next week, Tony Cross watched the documentary The Accountant of Auschwitz...
The Accountant of Auschwitz tells the story of the 2015 trial of Oskar Gröning. He was 94 when put on trial. He was a former SS Officer whose role at Auschwitz was purely – as far as we know – administrative. He never personally killed anyone. He was charged with complicity in the murder of the 300,000 Jews from Hungary who arrived at Auschwitz and died there between the 16th May 1944 and the 11th July 1944. He wasn’t charged with their murder. This, the documentary explains, was a change in legal approach following the trial of John Demjanjuk in 2011.
Previously German prosecutors – when they bothered to prosecute at all – had to prove that the person involved had committed murder (and with a racist motivation.) What this meant was that after the Nuremberg Trials finished a lot of people got away with their involvement in the Holocaust. As the film emphasises you might not have killed someone yourself but if you were a guard at Auschwitz you were part of a system designed to murder people. You might have been a small cog in a massive murderous machine, but you had a choice. Your presence there made you an accomplice.
Indeed, this film points out that one of the great myths of the Holocaust is that you had to ‘obey your orders’ or you’d end up a victim too. But there’s no evidence that anyone who asked to be transferred away from these murderous duties ever actually suffered for it.* If you didn’t want to be involved in the killing machine you didn’t have to be.
When the war ended there wasn’t much interest in these prosecutions in Germany. This was for several reasons - exhaustion; a feeling that their ruined cities were punishment enough for the crimes of their leaders; denial; guilt and – frankly – the fact that many judges in post-war German courts (particularly in the West) were Nazis. What that meant is illustrated by this little set of statistics, which are outlined in the film. Of the approximately 800,000 members of the SS only 100,000 of them were investigated by the German authorities between 1947 and the present day. Of that 100,000 only about 5,000 came to trial and a grand total of 124 were convicted. 124. A lot of terrible bastards got to live long and comfortable life that they didn’t really deserve.
The interesting thing about Gröning’s trial though was that he never denied his moral responsibility, just his criminal responsibility. He testified about what he did and what he saw. There is a moment in the film where the tale of the crying suitcase gets told and you find yourself thinking that whatever he looks like now he was involved in terrible crimes. And I’m afraid that when it comes to the Holocaust moral and criminal responsibility are the same damn thing. Gröning has no sympathy for Holocaust deniers though. When he’s asked by a journalist what he has to say to Holocaust deniers he replies: “Nothing. They are hopelessly lost.”
It is why Gröning’s trial was so important. Even if he was 94. His age is an issue and it is talked about extensively in the film. Is it worth putting a 94-year-old man on trial? And the answer is yes. It sets a precedent. It tells murderers that they will never be able to stop looking over their shoulders. That justice – limited though it is – will be done. That witnesses and survivors will be heard.
And before I talk about the survivors I’m going to pause for a moment and talk about Holocaust denial.
Holocaust denial is reality denial. It is a crime against humanity and an insult to the dead. The Holocaust is the best recorded attempted genocide in history. The Germans kept fine records. The perpetrators themselves – even as they tried to avoid personal responsibility – are on record about what they did and why they did it. Allied codebreakers and military intelligence provided further information. There are accounts from those who survived and those who were just witnesses. All this information is out there. To deny the Holocaust is to be complicate in it. Even now. To deny the Holocaust is to lay down the seeds for the next one.
Just look at the world as it is now. With its populist pontificators spewing nationalist lies and trying to blame ‘others’ for their own problems – whether those others are Muslims, Mexicans, Jews or the ‘tyranny of the EU. The modern world has never felt nearer to another Holocaust. Our language – and it all starts with language – is packed with hostility and fear. Words matter. And most of the people that write the words that inspire the hate refuse to accept the responsibility for the actions that follow. This film is another reminder that in the aftermath of the Holocaust our response was supposed to be NEVER AGAIN. And yet…and yet…
There are a handful of survivors interviewed. Their stories are terrible. That familiar tale of separation on the railway platform at Auschwitz that became the last time that people would see their fathers, their mothers, their sisters, their brothers or their children. Those to the right were destined for slave labour and, in all likelihood, a slower death. Those on the left were sent to the gas chambers immediately. Imagine being in those lines. Imagine being the people who selected them. Even if you never laid hands on one of them you were a murderer in my opinion. Just as a car worker in the modern car plant doesn’t build the whole car themselves but deals with one part of it as the assembly line roles on. That was Auschwitz. That was the Holocaust. You worked on an assembly line of murder. It was Fordism applied to killing. And no one involved should escape responsibility. Even at 94. After all, as one of those interviewees says, ‘you were never too old to be killed at Auschwitz.’
Directed by Matthew Shoychet and written by Ricki Gurwitz this is a sensitively made film that manages to contextualise the trial within both the broader story of the Holocaust in general and Germany’s legal system specifically. It is a story worth telling. And telling well.
There is a moment when one of the survivors, Bill Glied, is visiting Auschwitz and is going through the camp’s memorial book, which basically consists of a long list of their names on page after page hanging up for you to look at. It’s like a telephone directory, but of the murdered. And Bill Glied goes that’s my father…that’s my sister…that’s my mother. But you realise as he’s doing it that they are separated from each other by other Glieds. There’s so many of them. And it dawns on Bill too. And he says, ‘all of these are Glieds. Relatives. Cousins. Uncles. Aunts.” And it is utterly heart-breaking.
And that’s why films like this need to be made. So that we never forget. So that the Glieds – and the millions of others – are never lost to history. Forgetting – convenient and easy though it might be sometimes – is another crime against the dead.
*See Christopher R. Browning’s ‘Ordinary Men-Reserve Police Battalion 101 & the Final Solution in Poland for more on this.
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Signature Entertainment presents The Accountant of Auschwitz on DVD & Digital from Monday 15th April, 2019