People who aren’t brave now can’t condemn those who were cowardly in the war

Ironically, we should probably be glad that Oskar Groening did not do what he should have done when he found himself working at Auschwitz. In his teens he was a convinced Nazi who joined the Waffen SS upon the outbreak of war, and at the age of 21 was appointed to count the money taken from Jews at that concentration camp. Horrified by what he witnessed, he applied for a transfer three times. He was finally granted one and sent to a fighting unit.

He had the courage to prefer risking life and limb to working at the death camp, but not to down tools and refuse to work at all. Had he done so it would have been a pointless affair. He would have been shot for refusing to obey orders, his family might have been marked out for revenge as well and, crucially, not a single Jew would have been saved.

Yet it is still undeniably what he should have done.Instead, Groening survived the war and built up a successful career. Apparently he did not discuss events at Auschwitz even with his wife for decades. Then one day he read a pamphlet by a Holocaust denier and could keep silent no more. He entered the debate with his own eyewitness testimony, and from then on spoke openly and unreservedly about what he had seen.

Had Groening done the right thing at the camp and preferred death to being associated even in the smallest way with what he saw, we would have been denied that testimony, as one of the Jewish survivors of the camp recognises. Eva Mozes Kor says, probably rightly, that Groening is more use lecturing about the Holocaust to the young than rotting in jail in his mid-nineties.

We have a great deal of evidence from the victims of that monstrous regime but comparatively little from the perpetrators who, for obvious reasons, tend to deny or keep silent. Groening has helped to fill that gap. For Christians, Oskar Groening’s life demonstrates not only the possibility of redemption but also the way God can extract good even from the worst of us. Many active Christians, from the Pope downwards, faced similar dilemmas to Groening’s in the 1930s and 1940s.

Some claim Pope Pius XII did not stand up to the Nazis enough, but the Jews who hid in his summer palace were probably glad that he was still around to help them. The German Lutheran pastors Bonhoeffer and Niemöller preferred open resistance and paid the price. Karol Wojtyła, the future pope, led underground resistance.

Oskar Schindler managed to save Jews while producing munitions for the Nazis. Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer in the film The Pianist, was a Catholic who believed that Nazism flourished because the nation had rejected the Church. He helped Jews even as he served the regime.

Yet regrettably many followed the Groening route and kept their heads down, avoiding risk, hoping every day not to be challenged, even when evil was so visibly all around them.

Let anybody who has never said “you can’t say it nowadays”, when referring to a privately held, politically incorrect view, cast the first stone. Let anybody who has never kept silent while others rubbished the Church cast the next one. Yes, one can lose a job, but not life itself. Nor will one’s family die. If people are not brave when the risk is limited to material suffering, they cannot condemn those who were cowards when the stakes were so much higher.

Slavery was wrong and so presumably everyone who owned a slave offended God, but what of the slave master who was kind and caring? Who stood out against the brutality of his times?

Who saw that as a more productive path of resistance than fighting and making himself an outcast? Who but God can judge?

I recently re-lived a small version of this dilemma when going back to the Victorian age for a television documentary and deciding to defy the exploiters, even if that meant all the other workers going hungry.
Right and wrong are absolutes. Slavery was wrong.

The so-called Final Solution was wrong and there can be no argument to the contrary. All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. Therefore, they must do something. So far we are all agreed, but the real debate starts when you ask what the something should be.

Groening did nothing for 40 years but then did much, putting his reputation and finally his liberty on the line. The wisdom of man says he should be jailed for the nothing period. One of his victims says he should be free to carry on the something period. What God says he will find out soon enough – and meanwhile the rest of us cannot presume to know.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15).

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