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The sentencing of a 94-year-old former Nazi: What good is a label?

Click photo to download. Caption: The site of the former Auschwitz death camp. Credit: Pimke via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: The site of the former Auschwitz death camp. Credit: Pimke via Wikimedia Commons.

By Nathan Moskowitz/

A German court recently sentenced 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, a former Nazi, to five years in prison for being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 Jews between January 1942 and June 1944, when he served as an SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Hanning served in a unit that handled newly transported prisoners, and assisted in selecting those who would temporarily live as slave laborers and those who would be murdered on the day of their arrival. He was not accused of personally killing a single prisoner, but rather of being an accomplice to many murders and of being a willing cog in the Nazi machinery of annihilation. More than 1 million people were systematically killed at the camp during World War II, he Hanning was specifically charged for the slaughter of 170,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz because his service records could be matched with their well-documented transportation logs.

Both of my parents were present at Auschwitz during Hanning’s “service” and were fortunate enough to have survived. Their memoirs are documented in my book, “Kuzmino Cronicles: Memoirs of Teenage Holocaust Survival” (Shoah Forensics Art Institute Publications, 2014). Had they seen Hanning, they certainly would have had no recollection of him. More than 60 of these 170,000 murdered Jews were members of both my parents’ immediate and extended families. Although this number represents a small fraction of these victims, it is quite a large number for a single family and exemplifies the devastating impact of the Shoah on a smaller personalized scale.

My mother, a co-plaintiff in this case, and my father assisted Thomas Walther, one of the major prosecutors in making this very precise point by constructing our family tree for presentation at Hanning’s trial (see diagram). The black boxes demonstrate family members murdered in Auschwitz on the day of arrival, and the grey boxes demonstrate those murdered at Auschwitz or at other slave labor camps at a later date. Translated into English, Walther’s explanatory caption underneath the family tree diagram states, “I think this [family tree] most clearly demonstrates the destruction.”

A version of this family tree was also used in the trial of Oskar Groening, 94, known as the “bookkeeper” or “accountant” of Auschwitz. My mother also served as a co-plaintiff in that case. Groening was sentenced to four years in prison by a German court for his complicity in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews deported to the Auschwitz gas chambers between May and July 1944.

I take great pride in my parents’ small contribution to the guilty verdict handed down in both of these cases. When Judge Anke Grudda handed down the Hanning verdict on June 17, she said, “This trial is the very least that society can do to give…at least a semblance of justice, even 70 years after, and even with a 94-year-old defendant…the entire complex Auschwitz was like a factory designed to kill people at an industrial level. You (Hanning) were one of those cogs…you had been aware that in Auschwitz innocent people were being killed in gas chambers on a daily basis.”

Grudda’s statements about attaining “a semblance of justice” 70 years after the Holocaust ironically came just three days after President Barack Obama stated June 14, “What good will saying ‘radical Islam’ do in the terrorism fight?…What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change?”

This struck me as a sharp contrast between how Western civilization can simultaneously prosecute the largest genocide of the past, and willfully neglect to combat the attempted and actual genocides of the present and future. Juxtaposing the words of Grudda and Obama made me wonder why 70 years after the Shoah, German prosecutors and judges are motivated to put frail and elderly Nazis on trial.

The Holocaust still resonates today not only due to its unprecedented scope, but because the perpetrators labeled themselves “Nazis,” as did the entire world. The “Nazi” label is now universally synonymous with “absolute evil.” This label carries not a trace of moral ambivalence. By labeling Hanning and Groening as former “Nazis”—no matter how old, frail, or cute they might appear—everyone knows that they engaged in despicable acts. In the eyes of any judge and jury, whatever sympathy might have been garnered by their outward appearance was negated by their “Nazi” label, their psychologically palpable “mark of Cain.”

Labeling a nation, organization, or group as “evil” is a very powerful cognitive shorthand for making a moral argument against them in order to successfully engineer present and future strategies that will ultimately defeat them. When the Allies fought “Nazism,” there was no moral ambivalence expressed about Nazism’s evil character, intentions, or actions. The preservation of Western civilization was at stake. They did not accuse the entire German population or that of their complicit Axis nations of bearing any collective guilt. Despite the anti-Jewish prejudices these nations’ citizens might have had, it was their political ruling class that galvanized these countries into genocidal action. The Allies were not concerned that fighting Nazism could or would be politically misinterpreted.

The “Nazi” label was so successful in its equation with “evil” that it still resonates with the same chilling aura 70 years later. Not only does this label facilitate the prosecution of elderly Nazis by the modern-day German government, but it is also unfortunately one of the most misappropriated and misused labels, frequently misapplied for political purposes to benign people, organizations, and countries by their enemies. The label resonates so powerfully with evil that many of Israel’s enemies incessantly accuse Israelis of being Nazis in a libelous, inverted equation: Israel=Nazis=evil. For people who do not know or wish to blissfully neglect history, this is a very persuasive political battle cry.

Obama refuses to use the words “radical Islam” because he is concerned that the phrase will be conflated with Islam in general. Yet just like the terminology “Nazis” does not label all Germans, the term “radical Islam” does not label all Muslims, but rather only its radical extremist elements.

“Radical Islam,” like “Nazism,” is pure and unadulterated evil. It seeks the genocide of Jews, Christians, Yazidis, and minority/opposing Muslim groups. Like the Nazis, radical Muslims seek world domination.

Had Obama used the label “radical Islam” from the beginning of his presidency, would recent history have turned out any differently?

The current Iranian ruling class openly and frequently proclaims its genocidal intention of annihilating Israel and Jews. The U.S. State Department just recognized Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran supplies arms to Hezbollah and Hamas, not to mention to other organizations who likewise openly advocate genocide against Israel and Jews.

Nevertheless, Obama’s greatest diplomatic legacy is his embracing and welcoming of Iran into the community of nations. His Iran nuclear deal enables the Islamic Republic to achieve nuclear status in the near future, and infuses billions of dollars to buttress Iran’s economy and to provide it with even more capital for sponsoring worldwide terrorism. What if Obama applied the label of “radical Islam” to the current the Iranian leadership, rather than creating and perpetuating the false dichotomy of Iranian moderates and extremists? Would it have been as easy to dupe Congress into accepting the nuclear deal?

When Obama cheered the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and his replacement by Mohamed Morsi—a member of the equally genocidal Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks the destruction of Israel—would the world have cheered along if Obama applied the label of “radical Islam” to Morsi and his political organization? Would they have despaired along with Obama when current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a true moderate, captured the Egyptian reigns from Morsi?

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, and after the genocidal intentions of Islamic State against Christians and Yazidis became apparent through the spectacles of beheadings splattered across TV screens, had Obama labeled these players as falling under the umbrella of “radical Islam,” would it not have affected American and global public opinion to more forcefully take action against these genocidal maniacs?

The guilty verdicts of both Hanning and Groening should be applauded for their symbolism. These verdicts grant a smidgeon of justice to Holocaust survivors and their families, and honor the memory of millions of massacred Jews. But these victories will ring hollow if all they do is bring a sense of justice to the genocide of the past. Their lessons must somehow be used as a springboard to awaken insensate Western nations and catapult them into action against today’s unfolding genocides, and spur them to prevent genocides in the future.

If we take these lessons seriously, then perhaps 70 years from now, our descendants won’t be equally content with a tiny morsel of justice.

Nathan Moskowitz is the author of “Kuzmino Cronicles: Memoirs of Teenage Holocaust Survival.”


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