In Germany, one of the last perpetrators of the Holocaust is on trial. Ninety-three year old Oskar Groening is charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. He was an SS officer during World War II, and one of his duties was counting the items that were taken from the many victims at the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
The “Accountant of Auschwitz trial” has focused the world’s attention on the scores of Nazi operatives who were complicit in the Holocaust, even those who may have worked behind a desk.
“They called accountants ‘desk killers.’ It’s horrifying to think what people sitting in a back room were able to do and then go home to their family,” says Ellen Lippman, a University of Portland professor who’s done research in this field.
She says Groening is one of the few Nazis to ever be tried for this kind of accessory crime. Lippman says that Nazi accountants were key in maximizing the profitability of concentration camps and are culpable of perpetuating the Holocaust.
“One of the financial statements that I found that was horrifying was from Buchenwald, the concentration camp. And they looked at how much revenue is generated from one prisoner who was rented out to work at a work camp,” she says.
Lippman found many of the accounting practices then mirrored those used today, like cost-benefit analysis, accrual accounting, projections and deprecations.
“And among the projections that they made, they estimated the person would only live nine months because they would literally be worked to death. And the end of that period of time, at the end of the financial statements they have a line item that says ‘other revenue.’ So you go, OK, what’s ‘other revenue?’ Well, that’s from the selling of their products, the individual person’s possessions. That’s from taking the gold from their teeth.”
She says while she looked into how accountants specifically were complicit in perpetrating the Holocaust, everyone — not just accountants — had to participate for the the Holocaust to happen.
“Look, in Denmark, when the Germans came for the Jews, they had already ferried them out, because they worked together to make sure the Jews for the most part were not caught. Over a period of one day or so, they ferried them out,” says Lippman.
She says her research into Nazi accounting forever changed the way she thought about accounting and how she now teaches her students.
“One of the things I’ve created is a case that I present a financial statement to the students. And I ask them to analyze this financial statement. And to them it looks great. And I say OK, you know, how are the assumptions? Do the assumptions look good?”
Lippman says they’re horrified when they discover that it’s a statement from a Nazi work camp.
“They begin to realize that they’re not just presenters of information. They have to think about how that information is being used.”
It’s a lesson she takes to heart and one she says is highly relevant today.