The trial of Oskar Groening, a 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard, goes far beyond questions of absolution and punishment for a single German. Groening, after all, is not likely to serve out any prison term the court in Lueneburg may hand down — or enjoy a surprise acquittal for long. The trial’s aim is to send a message to future generations while not seeming like a show trial — a difficult task for Judge Franz Kompisch, born in 1967.

For the judge, trying Groening now is, at least partly, about setting the record straight for his profession. Heribert Prantl wrote in the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the trial should have started with the German justice system apologizing for not trying numerous Nazi criminals when they were alive, a difficult task at a time when many post-World War II judges “wore their old brown shirts under their robes.” There is nothing, however, Kompisch and his generation can do about that except to show, with the few sentences they can still pass on Nazi-era crimes, that every cog in Hitler’s killing machine will be held to account.

That makes it exceptionally hard for the Lueneburg court to acquit Groening. There are too few people like him still alive — too few opportunities — to drive home the simple point that if you watch a prison camp guard smash a baby against an iron grill and do nothing about it — and Groening watched, and did nothing — then you are an accomplice, not a witness. Even if you spent your Auschwitz career counting money confiscated from prisoners, playing sports and drinking vodka with your pals, even if you never actually killed anyone, you are still an accomplice.

And there’s no doubt this point is worth driving home. Brutal wars still occur; some are being fought right now: in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine, Nigeria. Atrocities are committed in all these conflicts, and it’s worth telling combatants that future generations will not take extenuating circumstances into account.

Yes, Groening was just a bookkeeper, and yes, he was raised by an extremely nationalist father, so how could he not have bought the Nazi propaganda about Jews as a threat to Germany? And yes, Groening, who had tried to forget about his Auschwitz experience and had told his wife to ask him no questions, decided to come forward with his reminiscences after meeting a Holocaust-denier in order to preserve the memory of evil in its purest form. So what?

Look into the eyes of the Auschwitz victims and their children: They know everyone who served the killing machine was a murderer. And it’s true.

Yet there’s another side to all this. It would be a lie to tell the current and future war criminals, big and small, that crimes are punished equally, that justice is evenly distributed. Much depends on whether you were on the losing side.

The coalition that defeated Hitler included the Soviet Union, a country where prison camp guards may not have sent millions of people to the gas ovens but where they watched tens of thousands die slowly of hunger, cold and hard work. During the Stalin purges, executioners would shoot dozens of people a day, then knife a few more to save bullets. I have talked to people who worked for Stalin’s secret police, and I heard the same excuses Groening is making today. “I was young,” they say. “I believed what I was told,” they add. “I never executed anyone.”

These people never went to prison, and those of them who are still alive never will. It’s not that Russia hasn’t tried to come to terms with its terrible past: It has. The Russian Groenings, though, were on the winning side. They were part of the force that swept Hitler off the face of the Earth. They marched with the troops that liberated Auschwitz. There is no relentless international hunt for them, as there is for Nazi criminals. They got old with their excuses, some even with their righteousness, and they have died in their beds.

Which is why the only way to atone for war crimes is not to fight wars, to resist violence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relentless efforts to negotiate compromises in conflicts others want to resolve by force are, to me, a better symbol of German atonement than any prison term that might be handed down on a feeble, 93-year-old former bookkeeper. Would that the victors of World War II had learned that lesson, too.

Based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.