An Auschwitz guard has been sentenced to five years in jail. Has the law failed?

When we insist on bypassing the individual and condemning the collective, we engage in the same process that made the crimes in Bosnia and Nazi-controlled Europe possible.

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A few weeks ago, a man called Reinhold Hanning was sentenced to five years in prison in a court in Detmold, a small city in western Germany. The 94-year-old, who worked as a guard at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944, was found guilty of being an accessory to the murders of at least 170,000 people.

Ronald S Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, welcomed the verdict. "He got the sentence he deserved," he said. But for many of us, a five-year jail term seems paltry. And there have been many other similar verdicts. Exactly a year ago, Oskar Gröning was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the deaths of 300,000 people at Auschwitz.

When faced with crimes of such magnitude and historical significance, the justice system seems to fail. With most of those involved in the Nazi crimes already dead, many going unpunished in their lifetimes, we want to hold someone accountable. The person on trial – whether Hanning, Gröning or someone else – becomes for us a symbol of Nazi terror, a representative of a genocidal system. From that perspective, a few years’ imprisonment is a grotesquely inadequate punishment.

But the law insists on seeing an individual. It is scrupulous in its demand for facts about that individual’s actions and imposes strict parameters for determining guilt and delivering punishment. It stubbornly refuses to treat any defendant as a symbol of a larger crime and demands that we do likewise. This is why Hanning’s trial leaves us frustrated. But it is also the law’s greatest strength.

In April 1945, British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The reports and photographs that began to appear in British newspapers in the following days provoked countless accusations of collective German guilt. "All Germans are guilty," declared a headline in the Evening Standard. "How can the German people even begin to atone?" asked the Daily Express. Readers’ letters were often even more vehement in their condemnation. "The evidence of the German maniacal guilt is for all the world to see," wrote one Daily Mirror reader.

Many ordinary Britons insisted that the Germans should be collectively punished and reflected on the form this should take. "Germans should be put on the rations they thought sufficient for occupied countries," suggested Edie Rutherford, a housewife living in Sheffield. Herbert Brush, a London pensioner, was less benevolent. "All those under twenty-five should go into a lethal chamber," he wrote in his diary.

Yet the men and women who were sent to Germany as part of the occupation and encountered individual Germans struggled to maintain their belief that all were equally guilty and should be collectively punished. They began to see that the idea of collective guilt was reductive and dangerous, obscuring the diversity and complexity of the German people.

Captain Maginnis, an American stationed in Berlin, wrote about his struggle in December 1945. "I could sit in my office and say with conviction that these Germans, who had caused so much harm and destruction in the world, had some suffering coming to them but out here, talking with people individually, I was saddened by their plight. It was the difference between generalizing on the faceless crowds and looking into one human face."

Earlier this year, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was given a 40-year sentence for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. "This verdict is not against one person," said the current chairman of Bosnia’s three-person Presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, "but against an idea, against the politics which caused such suffering."

Yet this is precisely the response that the justice system seeks to prevent. However much we may desire it, courts cannot pass judgment on political systems, ideologies or collectives.

At the start of the Hanning trial, Anke Grudda, head of the five-judge panel, reminded the prosecutors of their task. "We must not forget that we are talking about the individual guilt of the defendant," she said. "It is about whether the defendant is personally guilty of what he is accused of."

She was right to insist on this. Although we are often frustrated by its verdicts, the justice system rightly demands that every individual is treated as such. It asks us to move past easy generalisations and look instead into one human face. It can be uncomfortable. But when we insist on bypassing the individual and condemning the collective, we engage in the same process that made the crimes in Bosnia and Nazi-controlled Europe possible.

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