And now he's dead.
March 17, 2012 9:56 PM   Subscribe

John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian immigrant to the United States and later accused and convicted of serving in the Nazi SS as a concentration camp guard, has died.
posted by downing street memo (42 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and previously.
posted by downing street memo at 9:58 PM on March 17, 2012


For anyone who is thinking, like I was a few weeks ago, "what the fuck is a Demjanjuk", I'd like to heartily recommend this Harper's article: "Ivan The Recumbent".

There's a lot to be said about this trial and the modern European response to the Holocaust. I'm not really qualified to opine on it but I think the Demjanjuk case is a really interesting example of where Europe is now on this thing. Easy answers are not near at hand.
posted by chaff at 11:00 PM on March 17, 2012


Here's Gitta Sereny, who wrote about him in The German Trauma , on him after the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his 1993 guilty verdict : John Demjanjuk is not innocent
posted by Artw at 11:13 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mr. Demjanjuk died a “a victim and a survivor of Soviet and German brutality,” his son said, adding, “History will show Germany used him as a scapegoat to blame helpless Ukrainian P.O.W.’s for the deeds of Nazi Germans.”

It is possible that this is true while he was also guilty of the crimes he was convicted of, and in the process of appealing. Everyone there was sucked into the inferno, and the people on point in the holocaust were tools. Especially with the Ukrainian Hiwis and other Eastern "volunteers" there is a pretty blurry line between victim and victimizer. Everybody in the Ukraine and Poland got a shitty deal in WWII, it is only a question of degree.

I am glad that this chapter is being forcibly closed due to human life spans. Someone 87 years old today was aged 17 to 20 during the Russian - German bit of WWII. Nobody that age was making decisions at a high level, these were peons. The time to come clean was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but at the time both sides in the Cold War had interests in keeping important Germans useful.

Prosecuting kapos and camp guards today is maybe helpful for Germany's conscience but I'm not so sure this is justice.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:26 PM on March 17, 2012 [12 favorites]


.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:35 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Prosecuting kapos and camp guards today is maybe helpful for Germany's conscience but I'm not so sure this is justice.

Does death erase the past? Ask the Greeks and Armenians and Turks and Afghans and forever until the expansion of the Sun burns away all in Pandora's historicist end.
posted by Mblue at 11:46 PM on March 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Many countries don't prosecute crimes after a certain number of years have passed. It is thought that outrage over the crime will have diminished; that evidence will be harder to acquire and less reliable; and that the evident connection between crime and punishment will be less obvious. Another reason is that criminals evading justice are often punished by their own guilty mind.

We make an exception for some capital crimes, particularly murder. Murder is so outrageous an act; one for which the punishment is so severe; that passage of time is never enough to prevent prosecution. It would have been better if Demjanjuk had been prosecuted decades ago but I'm glad that he was finally charged and convicted. I want every potential war criminal to know that no matter how deep the execution pit, no matter how finely powdered the corpses' ash, we will drag murderers out of their beds and make them account for their deeds.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:05 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


served as a guard in camp. is that a crime?
posted by johnstendicom at 12:09 AM on March 18, 2012


When you are complicit in genocide it is.
posted by Justinian at 12:25 AM on March 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


What? Did you read what he was accused of? It goes a bit further than "being a guard in a camp". In any event I'm sure you're aware this "camp" is in fact a Nazi concentration camp. Are you joking?
posted by Hoopo at 12:31 AM on March 18, 2012


So this uneducated 22 yr old Ukranian peasant in the midst of the most horrific war ever, should have said to his German superiors "fuck you, I'm not doing this shit"? I'm serious what was his alternative?
posted by Xurando at 12:32 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


And keep in mind he was initially a POW. "Who would like to volunteer to not die here in this camp in the next few months?" Who would not put their hand up?

He was probably a brutal fucker. That's how you got to keep that job, and not die.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:36 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh. And there was me thinking that Osama Bin Laden would be the high water mark of unlikely figures Mefites argue we should feel sympathetic to.
posted by Artw at 12:53 AM on March 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian immigrant to the United States and later accused and convicted of serving in the Nazi SS as a concentration camp guard, has died.

Huzzah!!!
posted by karathrace at 12:54 AM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I presume there were hundreds of Ukrainians in those camps who did turn down the Nazi offer.
posted by Abiezer at 12:56 AM on March 18, 2012


Heh. And there was me thinking that Osama Bin Laden would be the high water mark of unlikely figures Mefites argue we should feel sympathetic to.

Hey man, he may have been an SS guard of a Nazi extermination camp but he was no Dick Cheney.
posted by Justinian at 12:57 AM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Technically speaking Sobibor was a death camp, not a concentration camp. Almost all the people brought there were murdered within a few hours of their arrival. Concentration camps were not actually designed to kill the inhabitants, although the dual status of some camps (e.g. Auschwitz) and the terrible conditions in concentration camps often blurred the definition.

It's worth distinguishing them because some apologists for the Nazi regime say "Oh, the British used concentration camps themselves during the Boer war!" This is true; and those were quite bad enough; but the point of the death camps was not merely to isolate Jews and other minorities but to kill them on an industrial scale. A guard at a concentration camp might be at least somewhat untouched by the genocidal intent of the Nazi regime, but Demjanjuk's duties necessarily included direct assistance in killing tens of thousands of people.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:02 AM on March 18, 2012 [11 favorites]


I don't understand why people have so much trouble comprehending that one can be both war victim and war criminal. It is decent and understandable to be both repulsed by the horrendous crimes Demjanjuk contributed to perpetrate in Sobibor, and glad not to have been in his situation at that age.
Unless we come to terms with the fact that one is no less a victim for also being a criminal, and no less a criminal for also being a victim, we will still have trouble understanding and solving past, present and future conflicts.
posted by Skeptic at 1:53 AM on March 18, 2012 [19 favorites]


If he was simply a low-level guard and not "Ivan the Terrible" then why was he prosecuted when hundreds of SS men and other cogs in the Nazi "machinery of destruction" were not? In the aftermath of the war, the decision was made to prosecute the higher level Nazis and those lower-level Nazis and collaborators who were personally guilty of serious atrocities, but not every single person who participated in any way shape or form in carrying the Holocaust. Perhaps that wasn't just, but that's what happened. There are plenty of people still alive in Germany who worked in the death camps and didn't serve so much as a day of prison time. So why was this Ukrainian PoW singled out for special treatment? I doubt he would have been prosecuted if he was identified as a low-level guard from the get-go. Basically he was a small fish who got prosecuted as a big fish because he was misidentified as one initially and his prosecutors couldn't bring themselves to just drop it. Maybe he deserved it anyway, maybe all the "small fish" should have been prosecuted. But to prosecute John Demjanjuk and not the hundreds of others like him is arbitrary and therefore unjust.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 3:40 AM on March 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


. There are plenty of people still alive in Germany who worked in the death camps and didn't serve so much as a day of prison time. So why was this Ukrainian PoW singled out for special treatment?
Yeah... I don't really get it either. What this guy did isn't different then any of the other members of the SS, or any other low level employees at the death camps?
13 July, he was formally charged with 27,900 counts of acting as an accessory to murder, one for each person who died at Sobibor during the time he served as a guard.
So he worked at the camps, so he's responsible for each and every death? I can see the logic there, but why doesn't that apply to every German who worked there?
posted by delmoi at 4:22 AM on March 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


FTA: In the nearly seven decades since 250,000 people were put to death at Sobibor, no surviving witnesses, even those who had been shown photographs, could place him at the scene.

Given the above, how sure can we be of Demjanjuk's guilt?
posted by Renoroc at 4:37 AM on March 18, 2012


I can see the logic there, but why doesn't that apply to every German who worked there?

It's part of a "looking forward" philosophy which is often relied on when we talk about things at this scale. ( for good or ill )

I think that's because "Justice" doesn't scale well, or we haven't worked out an implementation of Justice which does scale well -- and when diluted too much, Justice becomes so thin that it's more of an illusion...
posted by mikelieman at 5:34 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you read any artfully-written Holocaust testimonial, especially one of Primo Levi's, you'll notice that one of the overarching themes is the fact that your survival in the camps inevitably means someone else's death. "Survivor's guilt" may be psychologically normal in any similar situation, but in this case it's terribly justified, and drove many survivors to suicide.

So, if he really was just some prisoner who wished to save himself by becoming a brutal tool of the monster and thus deserves our pity, shouldn't his guilt have driven him to tell the truth before dying? Honestly, I'm skeptical. Let's not forget how most Ukrainians then (and, for that matter, now) felt about Jews... (Here I attempted to find a YouTube video of Claude Lanzmann's interview with Ukrainian villagers who were all quite content that all the Jews had "disappeared" from their midst, but it's the Sunday after Saint Patrick's day and I am *not* wading through 9 1/2 hours of harrowing Holocaust survivor testimonials for you or anyone!)
posted by Mooseli at 6:48 AM on March 18, 2012


So this uneducated 22 yr old Ukranian peasant in the midst of the most horrific war ever, should have said to his German superiors "fuck you, I'm not doing this shit"?

Yes. Certainly others must have.
posted by tommasz at 7:16 AM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


And there was me thinking that Osama Bin Laden would be the high water mark of unlikely figures Mefites argue we should feel sympathetic to.

Empathy. Some mefites feel empathy for people. Empathy is something you can feel for anyone. It isn't about excusing their behaviour or mitigating how much pain they caused, it is understanding how someone might get to where they did.

For example, I can understand how someone might want to collaborate with a winning army, even if it meant brutally killing many people. You do what you feel you have to in order to survive. He sounds like he went over and above that.

He was drafted into a brutal war and it sounds like it made him a brutal killer. I can imagine what it must've been like being a Soviet solider in a time where they'd shoot you for showing weakness. Imagine being 17, 18 and living that. That's where I find some empathy. He was a kid, he was probably suffering from PTSD and fearing for his life.

While others might've made different choices, life and death doesn't usually lead to the best in people. Some people may make heroic choices, others might shrink in cowardice, others might become evil, but the real point here should be that we should take war a lot more serious than we do. The recent solider in Afghanistan who shot a bunch of civillians has been brushed off as a one-off, but the more we learn about the psychological effects of war, the less we should be hastily sending kids off to be a part of it. It's insane how damaging it is.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 7:55 AM on March 18, 2012 [10 favorites]


Is the Mormon Church going to baptize him?
posted by mrhappy at 8:04 AM on March 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Now that we've finished with Demjanjuk, can we go after Bush/Cheney?
posted by Karmadillo at 8:12 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reading about his prosecution and conviction, it is hard to see how anyone could be sure that he is guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. Even the FBI concluded that the main piece of evidence against Demjanjuk was "quite likely fabricated."
posted by jayder at 8:21 AM on March 18, 2012


"So this uneducated 22 yr old Ukranian peasant in the midst of the most horrific war ever, should have said to his German superiors "fuck you, I'm not doing this shit"? I'm serious what was his alternative?"

It has been well reported that many refused to work in concentration camps, and were not persecuted for this, but just given other jobs. Apparently, no one was forced to do this.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:23 AM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


So why was this Ukrainian PoW singled out for special treatment?

Because he moved to America and was therefore easier for Israel to extradite? (I'm guessing.)
posted by desjardins at 8:28 AM on March 18, 2012


But to prosecute John Demjanjuk and not the hundreds of others like him is arbitrary and therefore unjust.

Accepting this premise would make it unfair to prosecute just about anybody for anything.
posted by gentian at 9:13 AM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Demjanjuk wasn't singled out for special treatment; about 300 former Nazis were "deported, stripped of citizenship or blocked from entering the United States" once the USA started seriously investigating them in the 1970s. Once deported they were a matter for the receiving countries and at least some of them were prosecuted and convicted.

People keep calling him a guard, but this was a death camp. He wasn't guarding anything. He and his colleagues took Jews off a train and thrust them into gas chambers, then killed them. All this was done in the most brutal way imaginable. It wasn't a matter of standing around and looking severe but beating and whipping and shooting people as they were hurried from the station, deprived of their possessions, and murdered.

I think part of the problem is that the enormity of his crimes is too large to comprehend. If Demjanjuk had killed people in retail quantities we'd have no problem saying that he deserved incarceration. But there's a point past which our minds refuse to go - they can imagine a single murder, perhaps a dozen, but they can't imagine someone being even partly responsible for tens of thousands of murders. And then too, it was many years ago in a different country, which makes it harder to identify with the victims. But these are failings in ourselves, not justifications. If we would prosecute the murderer of an individual we have no excuse for failing to prosecute mass murderers, like Demjanjuk.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:16 AM on March 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


Demjanjuk wasn't singled out for special treatment; about 300 former Nazis were "deported, stripped of citizenship or blocked from entering the United States" once the USA started seriously investigating them in the 1970s. Once deported they were a matter for the receiving countries and at least some of them were prosecuted and convicted.
And how many of them were prosecuted in Germany. He obviously didn't get special treatment in the U.S, but the fact that he was prosecuted is unusual.
posted by delmoi at 9:35 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I went for a run today, and thinking, was struck by the similarities between Demjanjuk and another John, John Walker Lindh. Both were prosecuted not for their actions but for their role. Neither case had a witness that said the accused did a specific act. They were convicted simply because the politics of the situation demanded that someone in that role (American Taliban, death camp guard) had to pay a price and they happened to be the one that got caught.
posted by Xurando at 9:57 AM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


ever see 'escape from sobibor' joe?
posted by clavdivs at 9:59 AM on March 18, 2012


Clavdius: I think so, a long time ago. I don't remember it much. Why?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:08 AM on March 18, 2012


Xurado, JD was a soviet prisoner.
posted by clavdivs at 10:08 AM on March 18, 2012


This fellow was singled out for special treatment, had a highly successful career and never asked about his supervision of the notorious mobile killing squads.
posted by hortense at 11:05 AM on March 18, 2012


I didn't want to editorialize in the post, but no one's disagreeing that the crimes the guy was accused of are heinous and deserving of punishment regardless of his age.

My problem is that establishing a chain of events and procuring evidence from 40 years in the past is inherently problematic from a historical perspective, and that's without the immense fog of war at play in Europe at that time. People forget that WWII caused one of the biggest mass migrations in the history of humanity; how could you possibly reconstruct, beyond a reasonable doubt, a narrative that puts anyone who participated in that migration at any one place at any given time?
posted by downing street memo at 11:07 AM on March 18, 2012


how could you possibly reconstruct, beyond a reasonable doubt, a narrative that puts anyone who participated in that migration at any one place at any given time?

Seriously? I know exactly where my family was during WW2. I don't think this is at all unusual. In Demjanjuk's case, his conviction was largely due to his wartime service card, corroborated by evidence of his former associates from Trawniki.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:27 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Demjanjuk wasn't singled out for special treatment; about 300 former Nazis were "deported, stripped of citizenship or blocked from entering the United States" once the USA started seriously investigating them in the 1970s. Once deported they were a matter for the receiving countries and at least some of them were prosecuted and convicted.

...unless they were Nazi scientists recruited by the US to help in the Cold War, like, for example, Hubertus Strughold, former director of the Luftfahrtmedizinisches Forschungsinstitut, whose only punishment for overseeing torture and killing in Dachau was having his name removed from a library.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:29 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a bit late, but here's a very readable analysis of the trial and prosecution: Ivan the Recumbent
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:25 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


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