The Accountant of Auschwitz


In 2015, 94-year-old former German SS officer Oskar Gröning went on trial in his home country, charged with complicity in the murder of three hundred thousand Jews at Auschwitz in 1944. Nicknamed the "Accountant of Auschwitz," Gröning was hardly a mastermind of the Holocaust, merely a youthful soldier following orders, collecting and counting the loot, the weathered boots, the valuable possessions of the doomed.

After the war, Germany had little interest in prosecuting its own. It was hard for the German public to accept that so many of its citizens were responsible for the horrific crimes committed under the Third Reich. Many of the lawyers and judges writing the new legal code were themselves former Nazis. The vast majority of Nazi war criminals, from the men who poured Zyklon B into the gas chambers, to the killing squads in charge of shooting mothers and babies into pits, went unpunished after the war. Now, 70 years later, most have perished, but for a man who at age 21, collected the stolen loot of prisoners as they were carted off trains at Auschwitz.

Gröning never killed anyone. As he put it, he was a mere cog in a large killing machine. He was just following orders. But he was there. He was a witness to, and helped to run, a system of death that killed 1.1 million people.

Gröning came forward in 1985, standing up to Holocaust deniers in an attempt to set the record straight. He gave a public interview in 2005, believing himself to be exempt from prosecution. But in 2009, a push by a new generation of lawyers in Germany, coupled with a change in legal thinking, meant anyone who served at a death camp could be tried as an accessory to murder. The net suddenly got much wider, and Gröning could face prosecution. His 2005 interview made prosecutors aware of his role in the Holocaust, and in 2013 they pressed charges.

The Accountant of Auschwitz traces the last journey of Oskar Gröning – from a humble cottage with his name on the courtyard wall to the defendant's chair in a German courtroom – and of Auschwitz survivors from North America who lost everything that was dear to them. From the failure of German post-war trials to the rise of right-wing extremism around the world, enfolded in this taut and trenchant drama is modern Germany itself, as a new generation of men and women seek to make up for the sins of their parents and grandparents in a land where every young man once was, or could have been, Oskar Gröning.

The Accountant of Auschwitz reflects not only one frail bookkeeper’s penitence, but the world’s responsibility to hold the worst of human horrors forever to public view. Bringing war criminals to justice, with no statute of limitations, asks fundamental moral questions with few simple answers. From Nuremberg to the new alt-right, The Accountant of Auschwitz constructs a stark reminder that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.