Review: Conscience on trial

Review: Conscience on trial

The trial in question, of Bruno Dey, opened in Hamburg on 17 October 2019.

Dey was charged with his role within the Holocaust. It was alleged that he was involved as an accessory (compared to a perpetrator which is the distinction on which the book focuses) in the murder of 5,230 inmates at Stutthof concentration camp when he was 17-years-old. Dey had been a guard in the watchtower between August 1944 and April 1945 when he had been a member of the SS responsible for guarding prisoners, effectively preventing their escape. He had therefore not played any active role in their deaths.

After the war, he became a family man and had worked as a shipping clerk, retiring until facing trial. In 2019, he was a frail old man who attended court in a wheelchair. According to German law, he was tried in a juvenile court as a child offender since he was 17 at the time of the offences. He had no previous criminal record, leading a blameless life until then.

The rhetorical questions asked by the author of this absorbing book comprise: “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?” Remember that there was a rejection at the Nuremberg trials of the superior orders defence. The author analyses that indeed Dey might have been able to seek out other duties away from those as an SS guard at a concentration camp without any risk to his life.

However, Dey was not being judged alone in respect of his culpability for such killings. These could not have taken place but for the collective culpability of the German nation of which he formed part. It was judgment of the German conscience and responsibility during the commission of the Holocaust that was on trial.

In seeking to attribute guilt, what was the responsibility of those who were merely cogs in the process? How do ordinary people face up to the moral and legal dilemmas in undertaking their daily job? The Holocaust came about as the result of individual decisions, actions, and omissions. Without those who “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” the Holocaust could not have happened. For more than 70 years, no one in Germany was interested in guards who never committed the actual killings themselves. However the Holocaust was not just about those “brutes and sadists intent on battering individual victims to death. It was the industrial killing of millions by a criminal state. Employing all the resources of state power and all the industrial and technological facilities at their disposal”.

Dey’s trial provided another opportunity to consider how Germany has sought to prosecute those involved but perhaps not always as effectively or consistently as might have been thought. While there is recall of the household names such as Eichmann and those sentenced to death at Nuremberg, there were many others where the appetite for prosecution waned. That has changed to an extent in recent years as, owing to a paradigm shift in German law, successful prosecution for those involved as accessories such as Bruno Dey to these killings have ensued.

The book, in charting progress in prosecution policy, includes the trial of Oskar Gröning, a former SS officer known as “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz”. He was convicted in Lüneburg, Germany, in 2015, accused of being an accessory in the murder of some 300,000 Hungarian Jews. Bruno Dey, who was indeed convicted, received a three-year suspended sentence. The importance lay in successful conviction and not perhaps in the sentence.

But remaining is the question posed which is if ordinary people such as Bruno Dey had choices and were involved, what would you have done? Its message to collective conscience is stark.

Final Verdict: A Holocaust Trial in the Twenty-first Century by Tobias Buck. Published by W&N, 336pp, £25.

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