I recently went out with my dad to chop wood for our fire. We borrowed a ute from a friend and drove out to the farm of another friend, and loaded up the back of the ute with logs. While taking a break and eating our lunch, our conversation meandered through a number of topics, from Facebook to university to current affairs. One of the stories we discussed was the trial of Oskar Groening, the so-called ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, who was recently sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the concentration camp.
Having an interest in Germany and German history, I’ve followed these trials before, and I always have an issue with them. There’s the obvious dilemma: can you really put someone, now in their 80s or 90s, on trial for something which happened so long ago, and be able to truly convict them, given the fact that so many years have passed? And yet, can we really not prosecute someone who has taken part in something so heinous and horrific as the Holocaust, if we have the evidence? Not going through with a trial could be taken to mean that there’s a statute of limitations on murder, and that’s surely a dangerous path to go down, both ethically and legally.
Groening, perhaps to his credit, has admitted moral guilt to his part in the Nazi war machine, and that he was a willing participant. His punishment is a token custodial sentence, really: four years in prison for a 94-year-old person is a life sentence, and given his frailty, it’s uncertain how long he will serve.
But what I spoke about with my dad was something different, and it was something I remember from when I studied philosophy: the issue of identity and the persistence question. Groening was a young man of 21 when he worked in Auschwitz, and of course, that’s certainly old enough to be able to make moral choices. I also don’t argue that he was involved in a job where he was aware of the awful fate of the many Jewish people who arrived on the trains. However, it got me thinking about how we reconcile that person—that 21-year-old—with the same person who sat there in the courthouse last week.
There is a good explanation of the persistence question here (although it does become quite complex and difficult, and I take no responsibility if your head explodes)! Obviously there is evidence that Groening is the same person in terms of his name and his identity, but when I look at this man, I don’t see the 21-year-old who took banknotes from the jackets of recently murdered people, to help fund the war effort. I see an old man. How do we connect those two people? This man must necessarily be held responsible for the actions of his much younger self, because we have no other way of holding someone to account. But it seems so at odds, does it not? As much as I feel a distaste and a repulsion for the young man who stole money from people, who knew that they were going to be killed and did nothing, I also feel a sympathy for the person sitting in the docks: grey-haired, bespectacled, elderly.
This is not just a problem in this case, of course, it’s an issue in many trials, particularly those where a long time has passed between the crime and the prosecution. For some, the passage of time might even allow for a leniency in the sentence, if it can be proven that the person has changed, or that the crime was out of character. I think about my own life, short in comparison to Groening’s, and about the choices I made at 21. My own naïvety, my willingness to conform to those whose ideas I admired. Would I have been a willing participant in the Nazi war machine? Would I have willingly helped send so many to their terrible deaths? For his part, Groening accepts what was his role and appears to have spent much time considering the peculiarity of the Nazi movement, and the horrors he saw and heard. Rather than deny it, he openly admits his participation, and, while a cynic might argue that he is doing so for the purpose of a lesser sentence, he has asked for forgiveness for what he did.
As for me, the persistence question has bothered me for a while, given the changes we go through in our often long lives, and this case simply highlights it further. Memories are not always reliable, and when it comes to our identities, many aspects of them can be fluid. One evolves from toddler to teen, from young person to young parent, from renumerated to retired. These selves can be so different from each other, even as some aspects stay the same. And when it comes to punishment for a crime committed decades ago, a lifetime ago, what is appropriate? What is justice; what is fair? And is this the person we should be punishing, or are we doing this, because there is no other way for us to try to make sense of it, in terms of the passing of time and the way we change as people? Indeed, how else can the system work?