Oskar Gröning, the 93-year-old bookkeeper who kept a grim toll of the possessions brought by people to Auschwitz 70 years ago, said he was morally guilty Tuesday to aiding in the deaths of more than 300,000 at the infamous camp.
Mr. Gröning, a frail former health insurance manager, told the court at the opening of his trial that he kept track of the luggage and money brought by arrivals, mostly Jews, to the Nazi concentration camp in 1944.
The camp, now a Holocaust memorial, is located in Poland.
Mr. Gröning said he knew Jews were being murdered in nearby gas chambers and that his accounting duties as a then 22 year old had made him culpable.
“For me it is no question that I made myself morally guilty,” Mr. Gröning told a packed courthouse, according to wire agency reports. “I ask for forgiveness.”
In German courts, defendants are not required to plead guilty or not guilty as they could in Britain or the United States at the beginning of a criminal trial. Mr. Gröning’s attorneys are fighting formal charges that could incarcerate the concentration camp worker for the rest of his life.
Mr. Gröning’s trial, made possible under a recent new legal precedent that extended the prosecution to guards and other employees at Nazi death camps, has riveted the country. Prosecutors have said that German attitudes towards prosecution of accessories to Nazi war crimes had changed.
A decade before his trial, Mr. Gröning had spoken openly about his time at Auschwitz in public TV documentaries that sought to warn other Germans against denying the Holocaust.
His trial was made possible after the 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, the former death camp guard at Sobibor who was brought to trial in Germany after leading a quiet, post-war life as an autoworker in the American midwest. He died in 2012 shortly after the trial ended.
Mr. Gröning’s admission came 70 years after the end of World War II and 50 years after the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. A judge panel will determine Mr. Gröning’s sentence. Mr. Demjanjuk received five years in prison and German law requires a sentence of at least three years.
Mr. Gröning’s defense lawyers are expected to seek leniency, given his advanced age and his cooperation in previous anti-Nazi documentaries.
Prosecutors in Lüneburg in north central Germany had accused him of assisting, when he was in his early 20s, in the murder of at least 300,000 people between May and July of 1944.
In those two months, 137 trains arrived at Auschwitz, mainly carrying Hungarian Jews. Most were sent straight from the platforms into the gas chambers of the infamous concentration camp, where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered.
The trial stands for the late attempt of the German justice department to not repeat the failures and mistakes of the past decades when dealing with Nazi crimes.
Oskar Gröning was also on the platform at least once. His job was to note the victims’ luggage and count, sort and record the amount of money found in the items.
Prosecutors said his actions implicated Mr. Gröning in aiding the murders.
The German, who later worked as a manager at a health insurance company, never disputed that he was in the concentration camp.
Some 67 other plaintiffs have joined his prosecution, all of whom are relatives of those murdered at Auschwitz. Some are survivors of the camp and had been likely to appear as witnesses.
“They will give the dead a story and a voice,” said the lawyer Thomas Walther, who represents plaintiffs.
Because of the large number of people involved in the case and the international media interest, the trial is being held in a former monastery and school building, not a court, to ensure enough space.
Mr. Gröning is not the only person on trial.
The German justice department is also under pressure to ensure it does not repeat the failures and mistakes it made when dealing with Nazi crimes in the past.
Thousands of members of Hitler’s elite SS who participated in the murder of the European Jews in Auschwitz have never been called to account for their actions before the courts.
Thirty years ago, state prosecutors in Frankfurt am Main stopped the investigation into Mr. Gröning and other SS troops.
For decades, the prosecution of Nazi criminals was conducted, as a rule, on the evidence of a single murder – but that is almost impossible for killings carried out at a mass extermination camp such as Auschwitz. Mr. Gröning’s case was left uninvestigated for decades.
In 2011, Mr. Demjanjuk, a former Ukrainian-born SS guard, was found guilty of assistance to murder at the Sobibor camp in what is now Poland. But the verdict was not legally binding as Mr. Demjanjuk died before his appeal was heard.
But as as a result of his case, Germany’s Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes changed its policy and began to target guards from extermination camps.
Investigators passed on a total of 30 Auschwitz files to state prosecutors.
As well as Mr. Gröning, two other SS men are accused of assisting in murder at Auschwitz. Former SS members 94-year-old Hubert Z., and 93-year-old Reinhold H., are to stand trial following investigations by state prosecutors in Schwerin and Dortmund respectively.
In February prosecutors in Hambuerg said they have opened an investigation into 93-year-old Hilde Michnia who served as a guard in the Bergen-Belsen and Gross-Rosen concentration camps.
A regional court of Neubrandenburg is examining whether to bring to trial a former SS paramedic. The regional court in Detmold must decide whether a former guard will be brought to trial.
The central office for investigating Nazi war crimes, based in Ludwigsburg, is still searching for more Nazi criminals and 12 preliminary proceedings are already underway, deputy director Thomas Will said.
Resolving the legal legacy of Germany’s Nazi past is far from over.
This story was compiled from wire agency reports and parts of it first appeared in German daily Der Tagesspiegel, written by writer Claudia von Salzen. Handelsblatt Global Edition editor in chief Kevin O’Brien contributed to this report. To contact the author: email@example.com