Auschwitz Guard Oskar Groening’s Conviction Upheld in Germany

7-1-15 Oskar Groening
Defendant and former Nazi SS officer Oskar Groening, who worked at Auschwitz for nearly two years, attends his trial at the courtroom in the 'Ritterakademie' venue in Lueneburg, Germany, on July 1, 2015. He was convicted later that month and his appeal was denied on November 28 the following year. Ronny Hartmann/Pool/Reuters

The conviction of Oskar Groening, known as the “bookkeeper” or “accountant of Auschwitz,” was upheld by Germany’s Federal Court of Justice on Monday, the Associated Press reports. The former Auschwitz guard, now 95, was found guilty in July 2015 of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder by a state court in Lueneburg for his role in the machinery of the iconic Holocaust death camp. The first appeal decision of its kind, the ruling could have a significant impact on how the last remaining Holocaust cases play out.

“This is very welcome news of course, today, that the conviction was upheld,” Efraim Zuroff, a “Nazi hunter” and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, tells Newsweek. “It'll give things a push,” he adds. “From my experience, whenever there is successful prosecution it leads to more prosecutions.”

Related: The last Nazi hunter

Groening worked at Auschwitz, in Nazi-occupied Poland, from October 1942 until September 1944. His job was to sort money that had once belonged to the victims and sometimes to deliver it back to Berlin, and he was also assigned the occasional “ramp duty,” guarding possessions the victims were forced to leave behind on the arrival ramp.

“He helped the Nazi regime benefit economically, and supported the systematic killings,” prosecutors said in a statement when Groening was charged in September 2014.

Related: Decades after Auschwitz, former guard charged with accessory to murder

Monday’s ruling strengthens and furthers the legal precedent set in 2011 with the conviction of John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for working at the Sobibór extermination camp (in present-day Poland). He was the first to be convicted without proof of involvement in specific killings, but rather for his role as part of an apparatus whose sole purpose was extermination.

Since then, prosecutors have relied on the precedent to charge Groening along with a handful of other Auschwitz guards including Reinhold Hanning, who was found guilty of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder in June; Hubert Zafke, a former medic charged with 3,681 counts of accessory to murder whose trial has been postponed or stopped multiple times, such as in October; and Helma M., a radio operator for the camp commandant charged with 260,000 counts of accessory to murder, who was found unfit to stand trial.

But this is the first time the appeal of such a conviction has been upheld. Demjanjuk, whose case set the initial precedent, died in March 2012 while his appeal was still pending. Hanning, too, has an appeal pending.

“This strengthens the case of the German prosecutors who want to prosecute anyone who served at any death camp in any capacity,” Zuroff says. “Had the conviction not been upheld, the number of people who could be prosecuted in the wake of the change in German prosecution policy would have been reduced.”

Jens Rommel, head of the Nazi war crimes investigative office in Ludwigsburg, Germany, spoke similarly. "If it had gone the other way, it would have been very difficult for us to bring anyone else to trial because today, so many years later, it's very difficult to prove what concrete acts a suspect committed," he told the AP following the decision.

Zuroff suggests that the prosecution’s success could potentially encourage additional cases not only against suspects who worked at extermination camps specifically, but also those against suspects who worked at concentration camps like Stutthof, Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. These were not officially death camps, Zuroff explains, but there was a gas chamber at Stutthof near the end of the war, for example, and Bergen-Belsen was flooded with so many inmates that “there was mass murder through starvation and disease,” he says. Prosecutors are “trying to push the envelope all the time, and obviously the further German courts are willing to have that envelope pushed, the greater the number of suspects who will be brought to justice.”

Like Demjanjuk, Groening as well as Hanning were not incarcerated while they waited for their appeals to be heard. Now that the Federal Court of Justice has denied Groening’s appeal, it’s possible that he will be made to serve his four-year sentence. The AP reports that Groening’s lawyer, Hans Holtermann, said he expects prosecutors will now determine whether his client’s health is good enough for him to be taken into custody. If he is, the event would be significant; He would be the first among those tried under the new legal precedent to be incarcerated.

“The irony of the story,” Zuroff says, is that “Groening is a person who admitted they had seen atrocities, he admitted that terrible things had happened, he actually debated deniers. That's one of the reasons why he told his story and why he agreed to be interviewed 10 years ago.”

Zuroff was likely referring to the interviews Groening gave for Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, a 2005 TV documentary series by Laurence Rees. Groening had encountered Holocaust deniers at a stamp collectors’ club he belonged to and felt he had to insist they and others who deny that the Holocaust happened are wrong. "I would like you to believe me,” Groening said in the documentary series. “I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I was on the ramp when the selections took place. I would like you to believe that these atrocities happened, because I was there." During his trial, he expressed "humility and guilt” for his role in the atrocities committed at Auschwitz, though he maintained that his part was small, that he had never killed anyone personally and that he’d repeatedly requested to be transferred elsewhere.

Even if Groening and others escape incarceration, however, Zuroff believes it’s crucial to prosecute suspects. “If I have to choose between a trial with no physical punishment and no trial,” Zuroff says, “it's obvious what I would choose: To have the trials held because they fulfill a very important function, even in today's society.”

Read more from Newsweek.com:

Auschwitz guard convicted on 170,000 counts of accessory to murder, sentenced to five years
Former auschwitz guard, charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder, apologizes at trial
Former Auschwitz guard convicted of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder
Auschwitz guard expresses ‘humility and guilt’ at trial