The Accountant of Auschwitz opens the books on genocide

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      A documentary by Matthew Shoychet. In English and German, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      Why try a frail 94-year-old for crimes committed more than 70 years ago? That question is well asked and answered by The Accountant of Auschwitz, which packs a lot of history and unhappily relevant moral issues into its swift 75 minutes.

      Oscar Gröning was only 19 when he joined the SS. Assigned to the world’s most famous death camp, he became a very small cog in a large killing machine. But being a “bookkeeper” there gave a dark new meaning to the concept of crunching the numbers. Part of his job was to collect belongings from bedraggled prisoners as they arrived in cattle cars; there was little chance he didn’t know what those ledgers meant.

      As we learn in Matthew Shoychet’s incisive doc, more than 800,000 SS soldiers survived the war. Many thousands were prosecuted for war crimes, but a grand total of 124 were convicted. The postwar judiciary, largely composed of “ex”-Nazis, gave out light sentences and even vacated those after a few years. You know, for good behaviour.

      Occupied Germany eventually did a decent job of educating younger citizens about the Third Reich’s crimes in general, but the specifics remained hazy. Current law insisted that individual defendants be placed at documented crimes—difficult when guilt was carefully distributed among thousands, perhaps millions, of compliant people. This is why they ended up with latter-day trials like the John Demjanjuk case, launched in 1986, in which prosecutors found the right Ukrainian Nazi but the wrong Ivan the Terrible.

      This one murdered people at a different camp than that named in the accusations. He also lied and played sick to stay out of jail—something Gröning never did. By 2005, when the latter told his story to the BBC, German law had been changed to allow prosecution of indirect accessories. Charged in 2014, he pleaded not guilty but never denied wrongdoing. His case was further complicated when he debunked neo-Nazi conspiracy theories and provided facts that no other death-factory defendant had willingly shared.

      In the end, this Accountant is less about specific trials than about accountability. Constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz makes a powerful argument for the importance of precedent as a deterrent to future atrocities. It’s an ironic position, considering his unexpected defence of Donald Trump’s right to treat migrants as criminals—itself a touchstone of Hitler’s escalation of state terror.

      That’s why the real coup here was snagging Benjamin Ferencz to talk, at some length, about the shallowness of the following-orders defence. Now 99 and sharp as ever, he was a chief prosecutor for the U.S. army at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. “We knew we couldn’t get as many convictions as the situation demanded,” Ferencz recalls. “But we still had to prove that genocide mattered.”