The Accountant of Auschwitz

The Accountant of Auschwitz,
Directed by Matthew Shoychet

The Nuremberg Trials, which put many Nazis in the court for crimes against humanity, took place some three quarters of a century ago now, but the echoes of those trials, of the legal precedents they tried to establish (that those who committed horrendous crimes like genocide would be held accountable) and the vile deeds they sought to punish have echoed down through the twentieth and twenty-first century, as we’ve seen more and more genocidal slaughters such as Rwanda or the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia (and the trials in the Hague that followed years later). When it comes to the almost unbelievable crimes of the Holocaust though, we are very nearly out of the range of living memory, fewer and fewer who were there (survivors or perpetrators) are with us each year.

As such it becomes all the more important that we have documentaries like the Accountant of Auschwitz, which records events around what may well be one of the last such trials of a Nazi for crimes committed during the Second World War, in this case a seemingly normal, frail old man, Oskar Gröning, the eponymous accountant. Looking at footage of this 94-year old man it is hard to picture him as the young man he once was, more than seventy years ago, let alone as a black-garbed officer of the SS working in one of the notorious death camps (one commentator noted seeing such a frail old man enter the court she felt sympathy. But then she recalled what he and his comrades had done, and that sympathy evaporated). But he did, and after a long, long time, justice finally reached out for Gröning.

Hate is a powerful weapon. And it was in the Second World War and it is today.”

Rainer Höss, anti-fascist activist and grandson of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz told the film-makers, adding that the trial was important, not just to try and enact even belated justice, but to remind the newer generations of the horrors that went before and can happen again far too easily (we only need to look at the appalling rise in hate crimes in many countries to see how easily we can start down that road again). Höss also remarked that Gröning’s trial was important because it heard a lot of testimony not just from survivors of the camps, but from the perpetrator. When we have groups who wilfully ignore the huge amount of evidence and still try to claim there was no Holocaust, or that it was exaggerated, the importance of this becomes clear, and some credit must be given to Gröning himself who makes clear that yes, these things did happen, he was there in his SS uniform. And if he says that it is just that bit harder for the modern neo-Nazis to continue their Holocaust denial.

The film doesn’t just focus on this one trial, however, it attempts to place the proceedings into a much longer sequence of events, from the post-war Nuremberg trials to the quite shameful blind eye the new, post-war West German government turned to the many former Nazis who were allowed to go free and live a good life (indeed many ended up in charge of government, industry, the judiciary, so became the class that sets the rules and laws for such investigations and trials), and how the way the law was worded only allowed for very specific, hard to prove charges to be brought (such as a specific act of a specific person killing another during the Holocaust), which allowed many to escape any consequences for their actions.

There was also some element of collective guilt – how many fathers, uncles and grandfathers took part in these events? How much guilt by association does that create for the rest of the country trying to move on and rebuild? The few trials that did happen in Germany rarely convicted and those that did often gave remarkably lenient sentences (a soldier responsible for putting the Zyklon B gas into the fake shower rooms to gas victims to death got only three years). The Demjanjuk case, which some of you may remember from the news some years ago, helped to bring a change in the attitude in Germany. He was found guilty in an Israeli court where witnesses were sure he was “Ivan the Terrible”, but records found after the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed that he was not (although it transpired he had much other guilt, which he pretended ill-health to try and avoid answering for). Laws were altered to allow for trials that relied on more data and less on witness testimony (which had proven so unreliable in his case), and for those who may not have killed personally but were there supporting the whole process to also be held liable (such as Gröning, who rifled the belongings of those marked for death for valuables).

D-Day veteran Benjamin Ferencz is also interviewed – Ferencz was one of the chief prosecutors of the notorious Einsatzgruppen at the Nuremberg trials. They knew they could never hold every single person who contributed to the death camps to account – they numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands, they would still be holding trials today, as Ferencz put it. Instead his idea was that they would set a legal precedent with the trials, to show that any country that committed such horrible acts would, sooner or later, be brought to justice and individuals responsible would face trial and judgement. The idea was not just to punish these vile crimes but to put fear into future evil-doers that they would always, sooner or later, be brought to account for their disgusting, inhuman actions (think of the vile Ratko Mladić finally brought to trial in the Hague).

Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm, by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity.

Ferencz spoke these words at the opening of the Nuremberg trials, and the film-makers cut between this now frail, elderly but still strongly motivated man discussing his role and starting to recite his opening speech, which cuts to the archive footage of him in the courtroom in the 1940s, a nice touch. Alan Dershowitz, a former special prosecutor at the US Department of Justice who was involved in modern trials of historic war criminals, also gives some legal, historical and moral context to the trial of Gröning.

The trial itself is fascinating but also, as you can imagine, disturbing – some testimony is beyond comprehension, such as the cold-blooded murder of an infant in front of the mother, something Gröning witnessed a comrade do. I imagine most viewers will realise this horrific details is unavoidable, given the subject matter, but as with the powerful Night Will Fall documentary a couple of years ago (reviewed here), despite that I still commend viewing to people, because, dammit, we’re still seeing the sort of raw hatred of those judged to be “different” and where it leads, and we really, really need to be reminded of it, to learn from it.

The testimony of those who were there, whose ranks thin further each year, is vital, but also the film’s placing the events and their impact into legal and moral context for modern society, and, importantly, for future generations (and possible future perpetrators of such horrors) is extremely important, not only in making sense of it all, but in reminding us that we all, collectively, have to try to learn, to be better, and if and when some of us fail that others can and will deliver justice on them.

The Accountant of Auschwitz is released on DVD and Digital by Signature Entertainment from Monday 15th April

Hypocritical bastard

George Bush asked in a BBC interview if America still held the moral high ground after scandals of violated civil liberties, civilian deaths, tortures and Abu Ghraib: “Absolutely. We believe in human rights and human dignity. We believe in the human condition. We believe in freedom.” This from a man who is trying to veto a bill from the US Senate (how very democratic of him) which makes the use of water boarding illegal for the purposes of interrogation. In other words he is trying to make the use of torture legal. How this fits in with his previous statement is beyond me. How this retarded monkey can say things like this then apparently believe he is on the side of Good is beyond me. And just how so many fucking idiots can go along with it, vote for it and support it is utterly beyond me.

The fact that the Senate had to even pass a law declaring this process illegal to begin with speaks volumes – most civilised countries would consider such torture utterly illegal to begin with and not need to pass extra laws. This is how the self proclaimed good guys fight the good fight. No wonder the world is such a bloody mess. Neitzche’s cautionary passages on fighting monsters and becoming a monster in the process was obviously not on the reading curriculum for Bush or his supporters. Although since the brain-dead numpty seems to have difficulties with the fairly simple task of putting words together for coherent speech it shouldn’t be a surprise that he isn’t well educated or well read.

Clash

Sharia – don’t like it
Rock the Casbah
Rock the Casbah
Sharia – don’t like it
Rock the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

(with apologies to the mighty Clash)

The Twatbishop of Arsebury seems to have come out with his stupidest bit of pseudo-theological/political mish mash yet – he thinks we should incorporate some aspects of Sharia law into the legal systems in the UK. I’m not even going to get into the following the commandments of your faith debate here because frankly it is totally bloody irrelevant: in a civilised country the Law is the Law for everyone and all citizens are meant to be treated equally before it, enjoy the exact same priviliges it affords and follow the same rules or suffer the same consequences for violating it. The idea that different parts of society should be allowed to run to different legal standards when it suits them is utterly foolish, divisive and a recipe for disaster – where would you draw the line once you allow such a stupid idea into practise? And won’t every eejit with any belief system be out demanding special rules for them? Should we have special laws for Scientologists so Tom Cruise feels comfortable here? For Quakers? For those who follow the messiah Brian? Sorry, I don’t have to go with your legal code, I’m a follower of the Great Prophet Zarquon…

What’s even stupider about the Arsebishop’s ill-thought out comments is that they will more than likely make already strained relations in our multi-cultural society worse because many Britons will see this and think, here we go, our way of life under threat from a foreign culture, if they don’t like it why don’t they go live somewhere else. Sadly that bigoted view is heard all too often already and when a subject like this is brought up it seems to me more than likely all the stupid old fool has done is hand the bigots another weapon so they can turn to alarmed citizens and say, see, we told you these people aren’t like us… What the hell was he thinking? Then again what can we expect from a man who can’t even control his own crazy eyebrows??

Christian bigots

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (well, he’d be hard pushed to be a Calvinist minister with a name like that, really, wouldn’t he?), head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is demanding that legislation which makes it illegal to discriminate against gays is not applied to church organisations, a law which makes it a crime for people like the narrow minded B&B owner who refused to give a double room to a gay couple to do so again, just as it is illegal for businesses, organisations or public services to discriminate against people on grounds of colour, ethnicity or religion. In fact new laws are going alongside this to ensure equality protection for Catholics, ironically, while the head Catholic demands the right for the church organisations to be exempted and practise bigotry. Specifically he is threatening to close down the successful Catholic-run adoption service if the law goes through without an exemption because they will not want to give a child to a gay couple to adopt.

There are two huge things wrong with this request. First of all, the minute we start making exemptions for one law like this for one religious cult (and all organised religions are by definition cults, be they tiny fringe groups or huge ones like the RC church) then we open the floodgates for a slew of religious groups and others to demand they are allowed to pick and choose what they want to follow, which is useless. This is one of the reasons we base law on reason today and not on religious dogma, as most civilised countries do. The second is simple and plain bigotry – I don’t care how much the Cardinal and his chums say it isn’t, it bloody well is, they are bigoted bastards and that’s it. If an ultra protestant or Muslim adoption agency refused to let Catholic couples adopt the Cardinal would (rightly) kick up a stink. And the fact he is prepared to shut down the agencies rather than comply with the law, in other words to put his prejudices ahead of the kids needing new homes shows that his argument that they are principally interested in the welfare of the children is utter hypocrisy. Imagine a man in charge of an organisation run entirely by men who dress in what looks like dresses and have a reputation for interfering with choir boys being worried about placing kids with gay couples, what a nerve…

Conflicted by denial

David Irving (I refuse to give him the honorific of ‘historian’) has been jailed by an Austrian court for Holocaust denial, a crime in both Austria and Germany. I’m more than a little conflicted, I have to confess – I loathe this odious little apologist for Nazis and genocide (the shame being that apparently once upon a time he was a pretty good and knowledgeable historian) but although I despise people who persist in this fantasy of Holocaust denial it also troubles me that it is a crime punishable by jail (although obviously this is an offence with more troubling resonance for citizens in Austria and Germany than for most other nations, excepting Isreal).

It is pretty hard, if not impossible, to believe solidly in the freedom of expression if that freedom is not afforded to those who we not only disagree with but actively despise. And those of us in the bookselling trade have special reason to dislike this man, over and above his despicable lies on the Holocaust: when booksellers (including some of my colleagues in my former employer years back) refused to stock his books he launched court actions against them. Not the shops, the individual booksellers in those shops. Fortunately the company put up lawyers and he was laughed out of court. He continued to shuffle sadly around the country preaching to right wing fantasists and attempting to sell copies of his books from the back of his car and being abusive to bookstaff who said they had little interest in stocking it. Perhaps that is in itself a mild form of censorship, but booksellers should be able to decide that there are certain books they do not want to sell without fear of litigation from bullies.

Then he attacked Deborah Lipstadt (he has a history of using the courts to bully people) and found that she and her publisher Penguin were prepared to go the whole nine yards in a British court with him. He lost the libel case and was officially labelled a Holocaust Denier by a British judge, meaning we could all now apply this to him without him suing us. I ordered in a pile of Deborah’s book and we sold a ton of it – Irving was bankrupted and as such unable to run a new book company. His right wing chums stepped in to help by reprinting his tat on his behalf. Sad enough, but they also employed dishonest advertising, including taking pictures of Hitler and his senior staff used on one of the covers and arranging a picture so it looked as if they were standing around a table in a bookstore of my former employer, making it look as if they were behind his book, which they most certainly were not – nor were they happy to have their logo co-opted in this way. Gives you more of an idea of the sort of person you are dealing with, doesn’t it?

But I don’t like the notion of making the expression of a distasteful idea against the law; it is in essence what Tony Blair is trying to ram through Parliament right now with his ‘glorification of terror’ clause, which is vague and could mean almost anything, potentially threatening books, newspaper articles, books, TV, film and stand-up comedians with a possible legal attack. And it is pointless – it is not needed to tackle people such as Hamza who was recently convicted without such legislation or the creeps who marched in London after the Danish cartoons with placards which called for the beheading of those who mocked Islam or for Europe to be punished by terrorist attacks; these are all crimes under existing legislation. Even someone like me who believes in freedom of expression draws the line at people who call for harm to another and this is already dealt with under law – Blair’s new addition would create such a vague potential threat it would restrict free speech on important issues for no gain in security.

Farrah Mendlesohn, a well respected critic and writer in the SF community is so irritated that she is putting her own time and money into a new anthology of stories which would all fall foul of this new law if it goes through. And that’s what we do in a free society – we do not say we are free to speak as long as we don’t offend anyone or say something most people know to be false; no we engage in debate, write articles and books and demonstrate to those people and to society at large how wrong they are and why they are wrong. Details of Farrah’s project can be found here on Notes From Coode Street.

Still, it was hard not to smirk when Irving got sent down today; he reversed his previous claims that the Holocaust was a myth in order to weasel out of his charges. He knew when he travelled to Austria that he had an outstanding warrent for this offence from years previously, so it seems obvious he assumed either he would not be charged or he would be charged but not jailed, thus reaping the publicity and esteem he craves but which his ridiculous books have made impossible from most historical readers or academics. He told Channel 4 News earlier that he had booked a first class ticket home on a plane for this evening, so cocky was the little sod. So it is rewarding to see such a weasely and smug little git falling on his own face – and because of his own arrogance. But again I’m not happy about the restriction by law on anyone’s freedom of expression, even little creeps like him. Freedom of expression, like freedom of all types, is a double-edged sword, but one which must be applied equally to all or it is no freedom at all.

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…

Okay, a link in some questionable taste since it involves and Asian-Australian who if facing being hung by the shiny little techno-dictatorship of Singapore. There hasn’t been much coverage of this case in the British press – I only found out about it via my mate Adrock’s delightfully outspoken blog. According to Amnesty the Singapore dictatorship has executed more than 400 people since 1991 (wow, it really must be a deterrent, eh?); given they has a tiny population of only 4.2 million this puts them into the shameful position of the highest execution rate per head of population in the world. I’m not making any excuses for Nguyen – he tried to smuggle heroin after all – but execution is wrong and it rarely stops crime (or they wouldn’t need to keep executing so many people, would they?); as long as there are folk in vulnerable or desperate position there will always be folks who attempt stupid acts like being a drugs mule. Meantime the scumbags who run the drugs businesses sit in their mansions, utterly untouched by law enforcement; what do they care? Plenty more desperate folk to act as mules for them, while they stay safely out of harm’s way… Adrock, himself a Singaporean living in Australia, has an interesting post over on Outrageous, Beautiful Misfit (Parental Advisory Warning!).