German Guilt in the Twenty-First Century

‘Final Verdict: A Holocaust Trial in the Twenty-First Century’, by Tobias Buck

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 

In October 2019, a 93-year-old man was wheeled into a Hamburg courtroom, hiding his face from the public gaze behind a red folder, a pair of dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. Bruno Dey was accused of being involved in the murder of 5,230 people at Stutthof concentration camp.

Dey served as guard in a watchtower as a 17-year-old between August 1944 and April 1945 — someone who never fired his gun. He went on to lead a life first as a lorry driver and then as a shipping clerk, possessed no criminal record and doted on his four great-grandchildren. The questions asked by the author of this absorbing book are rhetorical: “What would I have done if I had been in Dey’s shoes? Would I have climbed down the watchtower and walked away? What would have been the consequences in late 1944?”

This book looks at the German fellow travellers of a system which turned “ordinary men” into mass murderers — those who did not resist the peer pressure to conform. As Buck comments:

“They compiled the deportation lists, shipped the poison gas, rolled out the barbed wire, kept the books and guarded the perimeters of Stutthof, Auschwitz and Treblinka.”

There were 170,000 suspects after 1945 of whom only 6,700 were found guilty: 5,100 of them received terms of less than two years or were fined. Paul Werner Hoppe became the Commandant of Stutthof in 1942. He killed Jews through using a converted train as a gas chamber, by injections of petrol into the heart and bullets in the back of the neck. Tried in 1955, as an accessory and not as a perpetrator, he was initially sentenced to five years and three months — and died in the warmth of his bed in Bochum in 1974.

Buck argues that the leniency shown was in part a psychological vehicle for West Germans to avoid reflecting on their innate gullibility in being seduced by the Nazis. A multitude were simply considered to be the catch-all mitläufer — someone who runs with the crowd. By the 1970s, the death sentence was not meted out and “small fry” were not considered worthy of trial. Even the Wehrmacht were considered to be “clean” until an exhibition during the 1990s exposed their crimes.

The author notes that seven out of the 15 highly ranking Nazis who attended the Wannsee Conference at which the Final Solution was decided were either never tried or escaped with a minor punishment. Moreover, Communist East Germany released a list of “blood judges” in May 1957 — those upholders of the law who had served the Nazi regime but now held senior positions in democratic West Germany. In July 2020, Dey was handed a two-year suspended sentence.

Since he was a schoolboy in Germany, Buck has attempted to find answers to this maze of conundrums and was shocked to discover that his loving grandfather had joined the Nazi party in 1933 and was inducted into the SS. His insightful book certainly examines questions of guilt, complicity, and collaboration, but these multi-layered questions have no clear answers. And so they will remain as the last Nazi fellow travellers seek the comfort of the grave as a refuge from the accusations of succeeding German generations.

Jewish Chronicle 12 March 2024

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