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The Conclusion of Tobias Buck's Review - Examining the Burden of Group Responsibility
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The Conclusion of Tobias Buck’s Review – Examining the Burden of Group Responsibility

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Currently, the conversation revolves around the topic of genocide and the shift towards the extreme right, making it difficult to find space to properly consider the significance and context, if not the impact, of these issues. However, a book provides a suitable setting to attempt to do so – for myself, it is the only place at the moment – and Tobias Buck’s Final Verdict is both relevant and intriguing enough to drown out the distracting noise. On the surface, it tells a simple story. Buck, a journalist, covered the trial of Bruno Dey, who was accused in 2019 of murdering at least 5,230 people at Stutthof, a Nazi death camp in present-day Poland.

Dey’s case is undeniably intriguing, but it serves as merely a starting point. The story delves into significant issues in a composed and refined manner. Buck, like countless writers before him, grapples with Germany’s communal sense of responsibility. Yet, he also considers the future. He ponders what will become of this sense of guilt when there are no longer any survivors to recount it.

In the dock, the long decades since Dey served as a guard at Stutthof are underlined not only by his frailty (now in his 90s, he arrives at court in a wheelchair), but more strikingly by his daughter, who wears a hijab (she is married to a Muslim). Germany is a country of immigrants now, and later Buck will have much to say about how those communities are supposed to feel in a country where Holocaust guilt and so-called “memory culture” has come to be an essential part of national identity.

However, at this moment, he is focusing on the trial, possibly one of the final of its kind. It allows him the chance to revisit the widespread and complete failure of Germany to prosecute Nazis in the aftermath of the war, as well as to hear the harrowing testimonies of camp survivors who are testifying in the case. In light of their stories, Dey’s claim of being unaware of the gas chamber at the camp not only strains belief, but also appears both pitiful (his stubbornness) and repulsive (his denial).

From this point, events spread outward. Buck’s ancestry includes German heritage, and Dey’s role as a camp guard leads him to reflect on his own grandfather, Rupert, who displayed a swastika at his wedding. Buck discovers that Rupert was an “early Nazi” who became a member of the party in May 1933 (at the time, 3.5 million people had joined, but another 6.5 million would follow). This information doesn’t shock or surprise Buck, but it gives him pause for thought. When discussing how Buck’s German grandparents viewed the war, his English mother remembers their sense of victimization rather than denial. This “distorted” perspective was based on their personal experiences, such as Buck’s grandmother fleeing Upper Silesia as the Red Army approached and Rupert surrendering to the Americans after Hitler’s suicide, only to be handed over to the Russians and kept prisoner. This mindset of victimhood was a common “reverse” attitude among Germans in the postwar years.

Buck’s book is not very extensive, but he does manage to include a significant amount of information. He carefully describes the Auschwitz ruling, which originated from a case in a Frankfurt court and was upheld by the Federal Court of Justice in 1969. This ruling led German prosecutors to believe that they needed to provide evidence of a suspect’s involvement in a specific crime, rather than just their presence at a concentration camp, in order to secure a conviction. He also discusses how this understanding changed in 2011, when a Ukrainian-American man named John Demjanjuk was finally found guilty as an accomplice to the 28,060 murders that occurred at the Sobibor extermination camp during his time of service there.

The Stutthof death camp is inspected before a trial of Germans accused of war crimes, May 1946

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Buck encounters numerous individuals who survived the Holocaust, including Charlotte Knobloch who played a critical role in reviving Jewish culture in Munich. When Buck inquires about what will occur when this generation passes, Knobloch responds, “It will be different. The stones will have to speak.” He also explores Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and allows himself to become immersed in its labyrinth of 2,711 concrete slabs, also known as “stelae”.

Finally, he details the debates that now rage among German historians and other intellectuals over the matter of German guilt and its centrality to civic life. There is growing unease in the country around the rituals of memory culture. The right, predictably, talks of a “cult”. The left worries that outward expressions of sorrow and regret are performative. And all the while, antisemitic attacks continue to happen. Eight days before Dey’s trial opens, a man arrives at a synagogue in Halle, east Germany, hoping to commit a massacre.

The book is exceptional and I gained knowledge from it. I appreciate Buck’s modest and balanced writing style. He is able to simplify complicated topics like the law. His writing is similar to a luxury car, serving to convey ideas and thoughts of others. It flows smoothly and without notice, even when the content becomes difficult. Above all, I believe this book is significant and its importance has only increased since I finished reading it. As a child, I asked a woman with a tattoo about it at a barbecue in Israel. I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust then, as I was from an English and Protestant family. She was kind and smiling as she explained that it was her camp number. This moment was the beginning of a tragic awareness for me. Sadly, women like her (whose name I will never forget) are no longer here, which is why books like Final Verdict are essential.

Source: theguardian.com