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[Leonid Bershidsky] Before old Nazis vanish, let them bear witness

Oskar Groening, a former Nazi, is going to jail in Germany at age 96. Tony Hovater, 29, a current Nazi sympathizer, has lost his job in the US after being profiled by the New York Times. It’s a shame the two will never meet or even talk via Skype.

After the Hovater profile ran, its author, Richard Fausset, admitted the existence of a “hole at the heart” of the story. He couldn’t understand how the former heavy metal drummer’s radicalization occurred. Behind this incomprehension lurked another question: How can one be positive about Hitler in 2017?

One reason an independent-minded person can turn into a Nazi these days is that there are so few living ex-Nazis left -- and that they seldom talked freely while they were still around.

If one’s life experience leaves a deep mistrust of mainstream narratives, alternatives start to look appealing. But, for people of Hovater’s generation trying to figure out the past on their own, it’s hard to find one that’s as real and tangible as the experiences that set off the quest. Hovater ended up with books like “The War Path” by British Holocaust denier David Irving, photographed by the New York Times on his bookshelf. He should have ended up talking to someone like Groening.

Growing up with a nationalist father between the wars, it was natural for Groening to fall into the Nazi movement. He volunteered for the SS at 19, and for two years, he served at Auschwitz. He didn’t kill anyone there -- that is now clear after an extensive investigation and a trial; he worked as a bookkeeper, counting the money confiscated from the Jews who were brought to the camp and preparing it to be sent off to Berlin. He also stood guard as new arrivals were herded from trains to barracks. He saw a baby’s head being smashed against a truck. He saw a gassing. He asked repeatedly for a transfer and was denied, then finally was sent to the front.

Then something happened that essentially made it possible for people like Hovater to become Nazi sympathizers in the 21st century. After coming back from a British prisoner-of-war camp in 1948, Groening told his wife not to ask questions. She didn’t, and neither did their children. Groening didn’t read or watch films about Auschwitz: He didn’t need to. People like him only talked when forced to testify, and then they were fighting for survival, not really telling the story.

Then, Groening met a Holocaust denier at his stamp collectors’ club in 1985. He was shocked: He’d seen with his own eyes what the man was refusing to acknowledge. He started writing down what he remembered, and giving it to people to read. People read and were afraid to ask questions. He talked to journalists. The weekly Der Spiegel published an exemplary profile of him in 2005. With its many mundane details and matter-of-fact tone, it was a lot like what Fausset wrote of Hovater, but the writer, Mathias Geyer, wasn’t accused of “normalizing” Nazism because Groening -- reluctant as he was to admit his own guilt as a mere “small cog in the machine” -- wasn’t interested in normalizing what he saw or did.

By talking in response to claims that the Holocaust was a lie, he opened himself up to prosecution. He was sentenced to four years in 2015 as an accomplice to the murder of 300,000 people. This week, a court decided he was fit to start serving the term.

It’s important to German justice not to normalize his experience, given the rise of the right in Germany in recent years. But he was arguably more use to the world when he was talking freely, denying the deniers. He was a credible witness to those who didn’t believe Holocaust survivors. He knows the story from the other side.

Of course, not everyone wants the truth. Last month, a German court sentenced Ursula Haverbeck, 88, to six months in prison for denying the Holocaust. She wasn’t old enough to understand what she witnessed in the 1940s, but plenty old enough to seek out people with Groening’s experience. It’s hard to give someone like Haverbeck the benefit of the doubt. I still want to give it to people like Hovater; I want to think he says the Holocaust is “overblown” because he never got a chance to ask Groening a question.

Though I grew up in a country, the Soviet Union, that was among the victors of World War II, and plenty of those who fought in it were alive when I grew up, it was hard to get substantive stories out of them. What scholars call “unmastered pasts” were as hard on victors as on the defeated. Perspectives outside the approved mainstream were precious; old people guarded their pasts from anyone who might hasten to condemn them or brush aside what they had seen and done. Now, even the luxury of trying to wheedle the stories out of them is largely gone. Truth is about your choice of books.

I guess that’s normal, though it certainly isn’t optimal.

By Leonid Bershidsky

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.