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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.

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