The Bookkeeper from Auschwitz

#1
For two years, SS officer Oskar Gröning served in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He counted the money of dead Jews and stood guard as incoming freight trains unloaded their wretched human cargo. He says he didn't commit any crimes. For the past sixty years, Gröning has been searching for another word for guilt.

The birds are singing outside; a warm, spring wind is gently drifting into the living room from the garden. An old man -- tall and powerful-looking with white hair and blue eyes -- sits in an armchair next to a fireplace. Three carved angels displayed on the mantel.

The man rests his right leg on a stool. He is very calm and speaks quietly -- and tells the story of the man he once was.

"A new shipment had arrived. I had been assigned to ramp duty, and it was my job to guard the luggage. The Jews had already been taken away. The ground in front of me was littered with junk, left-over belongings. Suddenly I heard a baby crying. The child was lying on the ramp, wrapped in rags. A mother had left it behind, perhaps because she knew that women with infants were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I saw another SS soldier grab the baby by the legs. The crying had bothered him. He smashed the baby's head against the iron side of a truck until it was silent."

The man looks out of the living room window, almost entirely motionless. His thumb swings back and forth over the edge of the chair like a metronome. Outside, the sun shines on neat rows of brick houses surrounded by carefully tended, weed-free gardens. Oskar Gröning lives in a well-ordered world.

He unbuttons and rolls up his left sleeve. "Here," he says, "look at this."

There is a tiny blue dot above his elbows, the remainder of a tattoo. "It was poorly executed," he says. It was supposed to be a zero, representing blood type O. Everyone in Auschwitz was tattooed, prisoners and guards alike. Jews were tattooed with their inmate number and SS guards with their blood type. Oskar Gröning was a member of the SS in Auschwitz for two years.

His dreams often end in screams. The screams turn into thunder, the thunder into humming and the humming into silence. They are the sounds of death from the gas chambers.

An organized world amid terror

Gröning, though, didn't kill anyone. He didn't pour Zyklon B into the shafts or burn the piles of dead. He watched. He stood there, shocked at first, then indifferent. It became a routine.

He lived in an organized world and its order ensured that the terror of the concentration camps could be compartmentalized, kept apart from the foundations of civilization. The terror was subject to clear command structures and tightly regulated service schedules, assignments of duties and positions, making one man a torturer and another a bookkeeper.

Gröning was a bookkeeper, and a conscientious one. He counted the Jews' money, sorted it and locked it into a safe. He was a bookkeeper of terror.

There is a photo album on the coffee table -- Gröning's life in pictures. Two-thirds of the photos are in black-and-white, the last third in color. But the pictures are unrevealing. Gröning just wants to talk, for hours, days, "it doesn't matter how long," he says, "talking helps."

Oskar Gröning, born in 1921, is one of the few members of the SS still alive today. His history, a German history, is a story of seduction and fanaticism, of perpetrators and their accomplices, of living with guilt, and of the search for other concepts of guilt. It is the story of a man's attempt to overcome a past so dark that it can never end.

He opens the album, the thin sheets of vellum between the pages rustle, and he leafs through family photos of his father, grandmother, grandfather, Aunt Marie, pictures of baby carriages and bike rides, until he reaches the images of men in uniform. His father was a member of "Stahlhelm" (Steel Helmet), a paramilitary group of German nationalists who fought against the Treaty of Versailles, against demands for World War I war reparations, and later against the Weimar republic between the two wars and against democracy.

"Father performed in nationalist plays in assembly halls behind local bars," says Gröning. In one play, a German was shot by Frenchmen because he resisted France' post-war occupation of Germany's industrial Ruhr region. "Discipline, obedience, authority -- that was how we were raised," says Gröning. His mother died when he was four.

The Jews were the "pig merchants"

He continues leafing through the album, clearly searching for something. "Here," he taps a photo with his finger, "look at the way we used to march."

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/09/international/europe/09spiegel.html

Story continues......

How is it, none of these SS men ever had a direct hand in killing Jewish people, or in general atrocities?

Maybe the victims did it to themselves :roll:
 
#3
For some informative views from the other side of the barbed wire, I recommend:

"The Theory and Practice of Hell" by Eugen Kogon, a former Buchenwald inmate.

"The Gulag Archipelago" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
 
#4
I was discussing Abu's Grave prison with a German friend, 15-16 years old back in 45, he said words to the effect of, These Americans could refuse to obey illegal orders but in the German army of Nazi time what do YOU think would happen if you refused an order ?
The guy is a gent and is left wing by nature, detests Nazism.
john
as to the book keeper, should have been strung up years ago.
 
#6
I went to the imperial war museum recently and in the holocaust section next to one exhibits was one of those information 'thingys' (I cant think of a better word cos im special) that said something along the lines of 'while transfering was frowned upon, it was possible for concentration camp workers to move to another unit'

I had always thought that it was either follow orders or be shot.... but unless the imperial war musuem histortians are lying then surely there can be no excuses, even for those who were involved in a more 'hands off' capacity. I realise this doesn't exactly count as well documented research... some exhibit at a museum is hardly gospel.. but I doubt the war museum could allow themselves to be wrong on such a sensitive issue.

'they were just following orders' - this is never going to wash.
 
E

error_unknown

Guest
#7
The consequences for Concentration Camp personnel who refused to participate in killings were not especially severe: generally they were just moved on to a different branch within the SS.
 
#8
Desert_Fox said:
I went to the imperial war museum recently and in the holocaust section next to one exhibits was one of those information 'thingys' (I cant think of a better word cos im special) that said something along the lines of 'while transfering was frowned upon, it was possible for concentration camp workers to move to another unit'

I had always thought that it was either follow orders or be shot.... but unless the imperial war musuem histortians are lying then surely there can be no excuses, even for those who were involved in a more 'hands off' capacity. I realise this doesn't exactly count as well documented research... some exhibit at a museum is hardly gospel.. but I doubt the war museum could allow themselves to be wrong on such a sensitive issue.

'they were just following orders' - this is never going to wash.
Actually, Waffen-SS members, who got wounded and could not do combat duty anymore were often transfered to become concentration camp guards, on the other hand the Waffen-SS Division Totenkopf was made up of former concentration camp guards after the Waffen-SS suffered high losses and desperately needed replacements. Nobody can say that the Waffen-SS were just ordinary soldiers (though in the late stages of the war e.g. whole units of Luftwaffe Field Divisions or drafted Hitler Youths were simply transfered into the Waffen-SS without being asked).
An interesting book (though I don´t know if it has been published in English) is "Der Orden Unter dem Totenkopf" by Heinz Höhne. This book gives a very detailed overview about the different branches of the SS (which was a huge organisation and included intelligence services, industrial complexes, maternity homes, ideological schools etc.) and their interactions.

Concerning the technocrats, like this Oskar Gröning I´d suggest to read the transscripts of the Eichmann trials in Israel or the statement of the Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss in Nuremberg. The Jewish writer Hannah Arendt, who followed the Eichmann trials spoke about the "banality of the evil", men, who spent the day killing women and children by the thousands, to be in the evening the caring family fathers.
The base of Nazi ideology was the belief that humans are by birth unequal, depending on race, with some races being superior to others and the belief that compassion was a sign of weakness.

Then, there was an immense peer pressure on the mostly very young SS men, who had to carry out the killings (their older superiors usually gave orders from the background). Not to be a coldblooded killer was considered to be sissy.
Another method was described by the commander of the Totenkopf Verbände (Concentration camp guard units). The young recruits, already indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda, were systematically abused by drill instructors and then, thoroughly frustrated, let loose on prisoners, who were by the Nazi ideology not considered humans, but vermin which needs to be exterminated (read Concentration camp guard Irma Greese´s statements in the Belsen trials). BTW, the Japanese used very similar methods to make their military recruits become merciless killers. You can call it a type of brainwashing.
Also, in mamy concentration camps, prisoners, professional criminals, were given positions of trust and control, even power over life and death, over their fellow prisoners as Capos and often these Capos did the dirty work, like operating gas chambers, on behalf of the SS. Capos were often hated more by the prisoners than the more distant SS guards.
The whole structure of the SS machinery was to spread individual responsibility away from the individual guard, so that he could claim that he not responsible. (there exists the nasty post war joke that prewar Germany must have had a population of 240 million people, because everybody claimed that he had two Jews hidden away). True change in German perception only happened in the late 1960s, early 1970s, when a generation, which was born post war, reached adulthood and started asking questions like "What did you do during WW2?".

For myself, my maternal grandfather was a member of the SS, apparently he was involved in the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and later transfered to the eastern front, where he got killed in the battle of Kursk. I´m currently researching his history, because I want to know in how far he was implicated in attrocities. My mother was 2 years old when he died and nobody of the older generation (by now all dead) spoke about him.

Jan

Edit for spelling
 
#9
BTW, concerning my last post, I don´t want to have anybody in here think that I´m looking for excuses what my grandfather probably did. I want to know WHAT exactly did happen, and if, what made my gandfather do it.
I´m politically on the centre-left of the political spectrum and have zero sympathies for Nazis.

Jan
 
#10
Thanks for the post Walther. It was just the sort of well informed responce I was looking for and exactly what mine wasn't (well informed).
I have relatives on both sides of the war, and although the only slighty potentially murky one is extremely distant, I have always wondered quite what it would have been like to be German in those dark days. Would I myself have realised the true horror of what was being done? And if so what would I have done....
 
#11
Walther said:
...in the late stages of the war e.g. whole units of Luftwaffe Field Divisions or drafted Hitler Youths were simply transfered into the Waffen-SS without being asked
Jan,
Not hugely surprising. The nazification of the Luftwaffe under Göering was intentional from the outset. Hitler distrusted the Wehrmacht so much that he removed the anti-aircraft capability from the Army and gave it to the Luftwaffe as an insurance policy. No Wehrmacht insurrection would have lasted long without AA guns or air support. The Luftwaffe infantry divisions were formed for the same reason and, where possible, carefully interspersed between 'unreliable' Wehrmacht formations.
 
#12
stickybomb said:
Walther said:
...in the late stages of the war e.g. whole units of Luftwaffe Field Divisions or drafted Hitler Youths were simply transfered into the Waffen-SS without being asked
Jan,
Not hugely surprising. The nazification of the Luftwaffe under Göering was intentional from the outset. Hitler distrusted the Wehrmacht so much that he removed the anti-aircraft capability from the Army and gave it to the Luftwaffe as an insurance policy. No Wehrmacht insurrection would have lasted long without AA guns or air support. The Luftwaffe infantry divisions were formed for the same reason and, where possible, carefully interspersed between 'unreliable' Wehrmacht formations.
Also, after the attempted coup of July 20th 1944, Hitler didn´t trust the Wehrmacht anymore and sharply increased the powers of the SS. Before the Wehrmacht had the first pick on conscripts, while only volunteers were allowed to go to the Waffen-SS. Afterwards even pet projects, like the V2 rocket were put under SS command and e.g. General Dornberger, who used to be in charge, was replaced by somebody of the SS. Even Wernher von Braun found himself arrested for a few days.

Jan
 
#13
The book "Hitler's Willing Executionors" by Daniel Goldhagen mainly concerns the activities of the SS police battalions behind the lines of the Eastern Front. The book has been criticised because Goldhagen has a firm opinion on the culpability of the German people as a whole. I would not take such an extreme stance but his research throws up some interesting facts.

It was not unknown for soldiers to refuse to take part in executions and to request transfers. Indeed, Himmler was so concerned about the effect of mass killings on the troops that he made an infamous speech to a gathering of SS officers (I think this was in 1942; controversially, Speer was on the guest list) that tackled the subject.

The reason of rigid discipline can therefore be refuted. However, it is worth pointing out that the Wehrmacht had a large and powerful military police force and that the role of the Wehrmacht (as opposed to the military police) may not be so clear-cut. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that Army and Army Group commanders would be unaware of the deliberate programme of atrocity in their areas of responsiblilty.

Interestingly, the claim that Speer knew about the extermination camps has been resurrected. It is inconceivable that, with such a key ministerial role as Minister for Production, Speer was in the dark on this project. It would require the diversion of massive resources, for example from the rail network.

The German people as a whole were certainly aware of the atrocities committed towards Jews from 1933 onwards. They approved of these atrocities, partly as the result of leadership and propaganda, and partly from the unpleasant side of human nature. Whether they were aware of a mass extermination programme is difficult to ascertain. I believe that those who try to make a difference between earlier atrocities and the death camps are missing the point. The persecution of Jews enshrined in law set the preconditions for the extermination camps. I have been to Dachau (not a death camp) and it would have been impossible to conceal such an undertaking and I think the existence of such camps was used as a method of ensuring population compliance.

The death camps were not a German phenomenon. They were a human phenomenon, and the same situation could easily arise anywhere in the world with the correct preconditions of bigotry and authoritarianism.
 

maninblack

LE
Book Reviewer
#14
As far as I am aware, the third reich was a massive paperwork exercise with manic record keeping tendencies documenting the most banal aspects of people's lives yet I am not aware of any transcripts of members of the SS being subjected to formal action for refusing an order in relation to the death camps...........perhaps the phrase should be "I was only acting under peer pressure."
 
#15
MrPVRd said:
The book "Hitler's Willing Executionors" by Daniel Goldhagen mainly concerns the activities of the SS police battalions behind the lines of the Eastern Front. The book has been criticised because Goldhagen has a firm opinion on the culpability of the German people as a whole. I would not take such an extreme stance but his research throws up some interesting facts.

It was not unknown for soldiers to refuse to take part in executions and to request transfers. Indeed, Himmler was so concerned about the effect of mass killings on the troops that he made an infamous speech to a gathering of SS officers (I think this was in 1942; controversially, Speer was on the guest list) that tackled the subject.

The reason of rigid discipline can therefore be refuted. However, it is worth pointing out that the Wehrmacht had a large and powerful military police force and that the role of the Wehrmacht (as opposed to the military police) may not be so clear-cut. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that Army and Army Group commanders would be unaware of the deliberate programme of atrocity in their areas of responsiblilty.

Interestingly, the claim that Speer knew about the extermination camps has been resurrected. It is inconceivable that, with such a key ministerial role as Minister for Production, Speer was in the dark on this project. It would require the diversion of massive resources, for example from the rail network.

The German people as a whole were certainly aware of the atrocities committed towards Jews from 1933 onwards. They approved of these atrocities, partly as the result of leadership and propaganda, and partly from the unpleasant side of human nature. Whether they were aware of a mass extermination programme is difficult to ascertain. I believe that those who try to make a difference between earlier atrocities and the death camps are missing the point. The persecution of Jews enshrined in law set the preconditions for the extermination camps. I have been to Dachau (not a death camp) and it would have been impossible to conceal such an undertaking and I think the existence of such camps was used as a method of ensuring population compliance.

The death camps were not a German phenomenon. They were a human phenomenon, and the same situation could easily arise anywhere in the world with the correct preconditions of bigotry and authoritarianism.
It is well known that many SS members refused to take part in executions by firing squad after having participated once, also that it took the commanders often a big amount of schnapps to get the SS men drunk so that they would shoot at unarmed women and children. Most normal humans have inhibitions to kill another human coldblooded (thanks God!).
Due to this reason, the SS leadership decided on using poison gas. First, they needed less staff to kill the same number of people, the whole thing went on more quietly and the guy who actually poured the Cyclon B poison down a chute into the gas chamber didn´t see the people he killed, making it easier for him.
Another thing was to make the victims look as unhuman as possible. Women got their hair cut off, so that they would look ugly.

I also believe that most people during the Third Reich knew more about what was going on than they admitted after the war. How e.g. could the citizens of Weimar fail to notice the starved creatures being marched every day right through their town centre from the camp to slave labour in the rock quarries?
I also understand that asking too many questions about what was going on inside the camps was discouraged, somebody developing too much curiousity could find himself inside the camp as an inmate.
Many people also prefered to stay deliberately ignorant (to prevent worrying thoughts on their conscience).

Speer is currently a topic being discussed in Germany. after reading some of his antisemitic statements from the 1950s- 1960s and after reading about new evidence, which unfortunately wasn´t available to the Nuremberg judges, I think that he was a very smart opportunist, who knew perfectly what was going on, who was in a position to stop at least some attrocities and who didn´t do it. I think with today´s evidence available he would have hung.

Jan
 
#16
When the Germans kicked off in 1941 with Barbarossa they did so with inadequate strategic transport. Panzer divisions excepted, the Wehrmacht marched and towed its guns behind horses. Their logistics chain was totally inadequate and could only just about manage to get ammunition up to the front. This had two effects, one immediate and one more long term.

Firstly the only way to eat was to "live off the land". This was shorthand for "steal from the locals". Hence each and every German unit in Russia was involved in searching for and acquiring food from the population. Given Russian scorched earth tactics, the partisan movement etc this meant that stealing from the locals usually involved shooting a lot of them as well. Which lead to reprisals against the Germans, counter-reprisals by the Germans and so on. So if anyone tries to make out that someone or some unit was actually that part of the SS involved with rescuing fluffy kittens from trees then frankly they're talking nonsense.

That said, I have considerable sympathy with the 18 year old private, a product of getting on for a decade of political indoctrination, who was given a gun and told to get on with it on pain of court martial.

Oh, and the second problem was that they were unable to bring up winter clothing. The belief that they hadn't planned was nonsense, they lacked the transport.
 
E

error_unknown

Guest
#17
One_of_the_strange said:
When the Germans kicked off in 1941 with Barbarossa they did so with inadequate strategic transport. Panzer divisions excepted, the Wehrmacht marched and towed its guns behind horses. Their logistics chain was totally inadequate and could only just about manage to get ammunition up to the front.
Really, they kicked off the whole war with inadequate strategic transport which is basically why, having failed to destroy the BEF in France in 1940, they had already lost it: they were no longer in a position to achieve their strategic aim.

As to the SS. It is certainly true that Zyklon B was adopted as a less stressful (for the murderers!) method of killing their victims, but in absolute terms, I'm fairly sure that more Holocaust victims died of shooting, both in the Aktion Reinhard camps on the river Bug (Treblinka, Sobibor etc) and due to the operations of Einsatzgruppen and anti-partisan forces in the occupied east.

From my research, I've concluded that relatively few SS men involved in the Holocaust were sadists or particularly enjoyed what they were doing, but most of them did buy into the Nazi racist cobblers. Their 'world view' saw Jewry ('Judentum') as an ancient and implacable enemy of the Germanic people, and saw Bolshevism as a front for Jewry, thus their activities in the East had a twisted logic in which they saw it as their duty to participate, not that this excuses them in any way.
 
#18
There is an article in todays torygraph
saying that just released documents show that
Speer knew exactly what was going on in the
extermination camps. At Nuremberg however there
was no proof so he missed the hangman
 
#19
Interestingly, whenever there was a serious public outcry, the Nazis caved in.
In Berlin e.g. the Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives were arrested by the Gestapo and held in a prison pending deportation to the death camps. The women staged a sit-in for several days outside the prison, receiving quite a bit of sympathy by the population (BTW, Berlin used to be a "red" town, being the biggest industrial city in Germany it had a huge socialist, communist, labour union movement and the Nazis had serious problems getting this city under their control. There were even civil war like scenes with leftwing anti-Nazis fighting back with rifles hidden away since WW1, like the "Bloody Sunday" of the Wedding district on May Day 1929, when police opened fire on demonstrators, killing about 1000). After a few days the Gestapo released all of the arrested husbands and they survived the war.

Jan
 
#20
I can see the point about indoctrination de-humanising young SS men to the point where they would willingly shoot women and children.

But how does that account for shooting our wounded outside Caen in 1944 , or the killing of XXX Corps wounded in the Ardennes?
 

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