Skip

The Last Nazi trial?
November 30, 2009 10:53 PM   Subscribe

Germany is, for the first time, trying a non-citizen for crimes committed as part of the Holocaust. John Demjanjuk, originally from Ukraine, is an 89-year-old man, retired US auto factory worker, and former US citizen who has been deported and charged with 27,900 murders for the part he may have played in World War II. This is the second time Demjanjuk has been tried.

In 1988 Demanjujk, then believed to be "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka, was convicted in Israel and sentenced to death. Israeli judges later found that, although there was evidence that Demanjujk served as an SS guard, he was not in fact the man known as "Ivan the Terrible."

Now German prosecutors say Demanjujk worked as a guard at the death camp of Sobibor in Poland in 1943, after he was captured by the Nazis.

Some fear that the German government is setting a frightening precedent with this trial, deflecting responsibility to a man whom Nazis would have seen as an Untermensch, or sub-human, and who claims he is not a perpetrator but a victim. Others say the trial is "too little, too late" and fear that, because Demanjujk is in poor health and had to be wheeled into the courtroom on a gurney Monday afternoon, he will become an object of pity.
posted by brina (115 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is very strange all around. I hope the facts come out properly, if that's even possible. However, and at the risk of raising ire I say this only offhandedly, it's not beyond the pale to suspect that the Weisenthal Centre's Nazi hunter and others are playing this thing up for all it's worth since there aren't many other Nazis around. It could be their last hurrah with high profile stuff so it's a kind of cash out. Again, just offhand speculation.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:28 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]




You know what, I'm someone who has, and does, and probably will pretty much totally dehumanize Nazis. I don't care about their rights, I don't care about their human dignity, any of that. I'd sooner see them dead than tolerated; I'm not some liberal with the idea that tolerance and love will always triumph over hate and violence, okay?

But jesus fuck, this guy's so sick they can only do the trial in 90 minute bursts. What's being accomplished here? Is it really a victory for him to die, sick and in pain and alone, inside of a year behind bars instead of dying, sick and in pain and alone, inside of a year in his home?

I guess I just don't know how I feel about it. I haven't any sympathy for the man, but it seems like we could really be spending our time as a species more productively.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:15 AM on December 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


I haven't any sympathy for the man

Why not? He hasn't been convicted yet, and has already been absolved of prior allegations.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:19 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is the second time Demjanjuk has been tried.

But it's not double Jeopardy because we say so.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:19 AM on December 1, 2009


Why not? He hasn't been convicted yet, and has already been absolved of prior allegations.

He has been absolved of being Ivan the Terrible. He has not been absolved of participating in the murder of Holocaust victims.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:23 AM on December 1, 2009


Funny thing: Among the witnesses against Demjanjuk in Munich will be OSI officials, who will come now with straight faces to swear that in 1943, from March to October, the man they swore was at the same time Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka was in fact no more or less than another faceless face among the Ukrainian Wachmänner at Sobibor. (Esqire link)

So people here are also calling him a Nazi without knowing any facts because some careering lawyers want to get their blood from the stone. At least try to get your head around the case before spouting glib platitudes about hating Nazis.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:26 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Some fear that the German government is setting a frightening precedent with this trial, deflecting responsibility to a man whom Nazis would have seen as an Untermensch, or sub-human, and who claims he is not a perpetrator but a victim

Isn't this saying that you have to be Aryan to have committed a war crime in WWII Germany? Saying that a former SS guard who contributed 27,000 deaths is not a war criminal because the guy is not of the proper ethnicity seems to be to be missing the most basic human lesson of the holocaust.
posted by cotterpin at 12:34 AM on December 1, 2009 [9 favorites]


There is something very askew about this, it seems to me. A lot of Nazis were treated very lightly in the immediate post-war years -- we were talking about this a few weeks ago here. The most this guy stands accused of now is being a Ukrainian prisoner of war who was forced to work for the Nazis in 1943 by the German state. Moreover the Federal Republic of Germany is, as I understand it, a legal continuation of the Nazi state -- that's why they paid reparations and East Germany didn't. They also pay out military pensions incurred by the Nazi state. So in 2009 he's being tried by the German state for the things that same German state might have forced him to do in 1943.

This guy seems to be on the same level as any kapo, frankly. A lot of them were sadistic and cruel, but as far as I know none of them were put on trial. Would anyone be paying attention to this guy at all if he hadn't been falsely accused of being Ivan the Terrible?
posted by creasy boy at 12:34 AM on December 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


Of course, maybe I'm wrong about this, and maybe more facts will come out, but it seems at this point like the most be could be accused of is being an opportunistic sadist when the German state forced him to do its business in 1943.
posted by creasy boy at 12:46 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


He was definitely a Nazi: "Demjanjuk admitted that the scar under his armpit was an SS tattoo". The question is whether he was a murderer as well.
posted by breath at 12:54 AM on December 1, 2009


There should be no sympathy for the devil, and here on earth the closest we've had to the devil were the nazis. Who cares if he's frail? He's a fricking nazi, and the victims of nazism were in far worse condition than this sorry excuse.
posted by owillis at 12:57 AM on December 1, 2009


He was definitely a Nazi: "Demjanjuk admitted that the scar under his armpit was an SS tattoo". The question is whether he was a murderer as well.

I don't know...if he was a Nazi, then he was very likely a murderer as well. But millions of people who fought in the German army were murderers, and they haven't all been put on trial. I think the problem is that something seems very oddly arbitrary about selecting this particular guy. ...But maybe I'm wrong, and I'll bow out of the conversation now.
posted by creasy boy at 12:58 AM on December 1, 2009


I watched the documentary Sobibor, which is basically an extended interview with Yehuda Lerner about the uprising and mass escape there and Lerner's part in it, and recall that during their escape the Red Army soldiers called out to the Ukrainian guards to at least not shoot and let the inmates take their chances, but the guards fired anyway. Which seems going above and beyond the minimum compliance of a collaborator under duress. So if Demjanjuk was one of those guards, he does have a case to answer, though I agree there's all sorts of other issues surrounding his health, age, the timing and actual purpose of the trial that are open to discussion.
posted by Abiezer at 1:01 AM on December 1, 2009


He was definitely a Nazi: "Demjanjuk admitted that the scar under his armpit was an SS tattoo". The question is whether he was a murderer as well.

I'm pretty sure they didn't let Ukranian Red Army POWs into the SS. At the worst he was a POW forced to work as a guard at a concentration camp. He may have been a sadistic guard, maybe not. Either way there is no way to tell now, and this whole trial is a farce.
posted by afu at 1:21 AM on December 1, 2009


There should be no sympathy for the devil, and here on earth the closest we've had to the devil were the nazis. Who cares if he's frail? He's a fricking nazi, and the victims of nazism were in far worse condition than this sorry excuse.

Well, the trial is in Germany. If the German government had a policy of imprisoning Nazis, that would mean putting millions of people in jail. Hardly seems possible.
posted by delmoi at 1:23 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not double jeopardy because it's not the same crime. Otherwise everyone acquitted of a crime would have a get-out-of-jail-free card. And as for the whole "he's a poor sick old man" argument, there's another get-out-of-jail-free card. Suppose that John Demjanjuk committed a murder tomorrow. Should he be immune from prosecution on that charge, too?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:42 AM on December 1, 2009


Here's the gripping BBC story of a Sobibor survivor.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 1:49 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


And as long as I'm posting gripping BBC stories of death camps, here's one of a guy who smuggled himself into Auschwitz, twice.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 1:53 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is a terribly difficult case and anyone who thinks it is open and shut in either direction probably has some sort of blinders on. It seems almost certain to me that Demjanjuk served as a guard at several concentration camps and thus participated in some heinous acts. On the other hand it seems at least as certain that he was a Red Army soldier who became a German POW and did these things in order to ensure his own survival.

Perhaps the heroic thing to do would have been to refuse and to take your chances in the camp yourself. But were we to put people on trial for not being heroes and standing up to injustice or the killing of innocents at risk to themselves we'd have to put virtually everyone in jail. Including many of the people reading this.

It's not an easy case because he very probably did some terrible things. If there was evidence that he personally carried out atrocities that would be different. But my understanding is that the best they can do is show he was a POW himself who was used by the Germans as a guard so that more of their own troops could go get killed on die Ostfront. And when it comes down to it I'm not sure how anyone in good conscience can convict of 29,000 murders a 90 year old man without being able to show he was more than a soldier captured while fighting against the Nazis, put in a camp, and doing what he had to do to survive.
posted by Justinian at 2:03 AM on December 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm with creasy boy: Can we be careful with who we're calling a Nazi here? Even if Demjanjuk did do everything they're saying he did, how does that make him a Nazi, distinct from any of the other groups of people who the Nazis coerced into collaboration?

He was captured as a prisoner of war, brought to death camp Chelmno, at some point realized that he might be able to survive if he volunteered to do he-didn't-know-quite-what, and then was brought to Trawniki where he was trained to carry a gun and be a sadistic bastard.

I'm not claiming that this is something he should have done, or something that he can be proud of, or even that he's not a bad person.

I'm just saying that for me, one of the most horrifying things about the Nazi regime has always been the way they coerced so many of their victims to collaborate with them, and that I don't think the responsible way to deal with that moral horror is to equate the victim-collaborators with Nazis themselves.

I don't know if the evidence exists to establish whether this guy, and thousands like him, were eager volunteers, or if they were POWs in forced labor camps who "volunteered" to become guards in the same way that some members of Judenräte "volunteered" to round up Jews in their own communities and put them on trains.

I think Scott Raab gets it right in the Esquire article:

"I've never doubted that even as a prisoner and a Jew, I would have done whatever would have kept me alive; and while it's pretty to think that I might've used whatever drop of strength I had to strike a blow, to brain one enemy, to die on my feet rather than live on my knees, I see little evidence for this in the actual course of my actual life, and I also thank God for never putting such a test in front of me. I've failed much easier."
posted by besonders at 2:18 AM on December 1, 2009 [21 favorites]


Demjanjuk is a massive story on the news here but not because he is possibly* the first non-german to be tried here for these crimes. there has been much public outcry from the victims over his lawyer claiming Demjanjuk was a victim and not a perpetrator. an elderly gentleman on some evening newscast last night mentioned Demjanjuk always had the chance to walk away while he himself knew if he couldn't make it out he'd be killed. Demjanjuk calling himself a victim is about as offensive to many here as it gets. it's also being said he's pretending to be frailer in court now than he appeared on very recent footage.

*I don't know that for sure and am somewhat dubios when it comes to this claim, even though I saw the links in the original post.
posted by krautland at 2:41 AM on December 1, 2009


It's not double jeopardy because it's not the same crime.

Wasn't he found guilty of being "Ivan the Terrible," had that overturned on appeal, and then accused of being a completely different war criminal?

That just sounds crazy.
posted by codswallop at 3:07 AM on December 1, 2009


I would strongly suggest that people here who think we can easily sort Nazis / victims and victims / perpetrators read the books This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Survival in Auschwitz.

The stories that these books tell can be summed up thus: to survive, you had to compromise your humanity, and you had to collaborate on some level. We are all inhuman and we are all guilty.

I feel sorry for this old man because he was put into the position he was. He had the choice to release the inner demon and work for the Nazis, or to die. There is nobody here on this forum who has been forced to make that choice, but the historical record that we have from the times of the war suggest to me that the survivors chose survival, and all that entails. The humans and the heroes made the sacrifice and died in the camps.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:32 AM on December 1, 2009 [9 favorites]


krautland-- To clarify, what's really frustrating to me is this need to classify him as either a victim or a perpetrator when there are meaningful ways in which he's both. I read something this morning where a relative of someone killed in Sobibor claimed that Demjanjuk was a Nazi and would always be one, and I was just as offended by that as I was by his lawyer's claim that he's some sort of eternal Opfer.

I don't think we know enough about the recruitment process and the conditions that the Hilfswilliger worked under to really say anything definitive about Demjanjuk's guilt or lack thereof.
posted by besonders at 3:41 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is a great post. Thanks, brina!

However...

brina: “Israeli judges later found that, although there was evidence that Demanjujk served as an SS guard, he was not in fact the man known as "Ivan the Terrible."”

We should note that this isn't precisely true. The Israeli court didn't find that Demanjuik wasn't Ivan Grozny; they found that there was insufficient evidence to overcome some doubts. It seems as though they had strong suspicions, but, in their words, there was a "gnawing" doubt left when certain facts were considered, so he was not convicted.

They emphatically did not, however, deny that Demanjuik was Ivan Grozny.
posted by koeselitz at 4:04 AM on December 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wasn't he found guilty of being "Ivan the Terrible," had that overturned on appeal, and then accused of being a completely different war criminal?

Not exactly. He was accused of being "Ivan the Terrible" and had that overturned on appeal. But the Israeli Supreme Court was very careful to say that they were overturning the verdict because they were unsure that he was "Ivan the Terrible", not because they were unsure that he had worked in concentration camps. That wasn't what he had been extradited for, so he wasn't tried or convicted of merely being John Demjanjuk, killer of Jews. None the less, there was enough evidence to satisfy a US judge that he had been a guard in Sobibor and other places, and that he had lied about this in order to gain admission to the USA. Here is a transcript of the judge's findings which show that he was in a volunteer unit trained to kill Jews and that he worked in a number of concentration camps.

I feel sorry for this old man because he was put into the position he was. He had the choice to release the inner demon and work for the Nazis, or to die.

You seem to be making up a story that would explain his guilt while mitigating it. The problem is that Demjanjuk claims that he was a POW until he joined an anti-Soviet military unit. That is, he denies he had any occasion to "release the inner demon" by engaging in the methodical slaughter of thousands of Jews. So nobody claims that he was forced into it - not John Demjanjuk, not anyone.

I don't think we know enough about the recruitment process and the conditions that the Hilfswilliger worked under to really say anything definitive about Demjanjuk's guilt or lack thereof.

I presume that, unlike you, the German court is ready to entertain the possibility that he is in fact innocent of the charges. But if he's found guilty I am sure that the court will consider the issue of duress when sentencing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:08 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I agree with those who say this is a difficult case, and that Demanjuik probably shouldn't be summarily convicted and executed without long consideration and thought about what it all means. Yes, there was a great deal of evil in the air between 1933 and 1945; most of it came about because so many ordinary Germans, people who never had a gun to their backs and should have known better, enthusiastically followed the Nazis into the breach.

But not everyone who faced the horrid choices of the third reich was one of those Germans who joined up even though they had nothing to lose whether they joined the SS or not. And it should be said: if there is any name that can be put to the massive gray area that German Nazism, Russian Stalinism, and the struggle between them created, that name is Ukraine. And I have no doubt that there wasn't a soul in Ukraine in that period whose life wasn't changed dramatically for the worst, no matter what their ethnic or cultural background. That's not to say that any Ukrainian who committed the crimes Ivan Grozny committed is absolved in any way, but more is at stake here than has been at stake in previous Nazi war-crimes trails; here, a false accusation really would be a direct insult to a victim of the reich.
posted by koeselitz at 4:16 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


besonders: “I don't think we know enough about the recruitment process and the conditions that the Hilfswilliger worked under to really say anything definitive about Demjanjuk's guilt or lack thereof.”

I agree that it's difficult, but this is important stuff we're talking about here! This is a consideration of the legacy of the Nazi regime; it's absolutely incumbent on us to reach some real conclusion about what happened there. The Nazi camps were full of this sort of disarray and confusion; so to say that we don't know enough about the conditions to say anything definitive about guilt is to say that we don't have moral grounds to talk about the guilt even of the people who ran the camps themselves. That's not an option I think we can countenance morally.
posted by koeselitz at 4:20 AM on December 1, 2009


You seem to be making up a story that would explain his guilt while mitigating it. The problem is that Demjanjuk claims that he was a POW until he joined an anti-Soviet military unit.

Huh? The Soviet POWs had it just as bad as the Jews in terms of attrition, they were being executed in mass quantities long before the final solution was in full swing. Any "volunteering" done in those circumstances was a bid for survival.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:04 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Scores of high ranking Nazis (including architects of the holocaust--not just the "order followers") were free to go--or free to go with light sentences--by Germany and other European nations in the post-war years. Here we have a kapo from Ukraine--one of the "subhuman races lower than the Jews" in the eyes of the Nazis themselves--and he's getting the full-bore, Trial at Nuremburg treatment.

Demjanjuk was originally convicted and sentenced to death based on wrenching eye-witness testimony--that lturned out to be impossible:

The strongest documentary evidence the OSI did give to Israel, an SS-issued ID card, clearly put Demjanjuk at Sobibor during the same time that Ivan the Terrible was at Treblinka. The three judges and the lawyers on both sides wrestled vainly with this inconvenience, but the Treblinka survivors' eyewitness testimony — sanctified, consecrated, beyond need of proof by virtue of their hideous suffering and lifelong grief — condemned John Demjanjuk to death.

The current trial doesn't sound much more promising:

Blatt, whose parents and brother were murdered at Sobibor, is eighty-two years old. He plans to come from California to be a witness at Demjanjuk's trial, to describe for the judges the horrors he saw, how the Ukrainians trained by the SS would roust and beat and herd the Jews from the train to the path that led to extermination.

Funny thing is, though, Blatt has no memory of Demjanjuk; no Sobibor survivor has ever been able to ID him.


Doubt has been expressed over whether Israel itself would have prosecuted the case:

"Would Israel have taken Demjanjuk on the basis of his Sobibor role alone?"
Zuroff continues. "I'm not sure that it would. The evidence against him was strong. But the only eyewitness who gave definitive testimony about Demjanjuk's role at Sobibor was a fellow Wachmann who died in the late 1970s. Would Israel have entered a process where the second execution of a Nazi war criminal here would have been based on the testimony of a dead Wachmann? I doubt it. It was always made clear to me that Israel would only seek to try very prominent Nazis - emblematic cases."


If Germany was going to aggressively prosecute Nazis, this is 60 years too late--and a pathetic stand-in for a "real Nazi" at that.
posted by availablelight at 5:26 AM on December 1, 2009 [8 favorites]


Any "volunteering" done in those circumstances was a bid for survival.

Ukrainians were notorious collaborators and many Ukrainians greeted the Germans as liberators. In one sense it's hard to blame them as the Holdomor wasn't ten years past in the early 40's. In this sense it seems forgivable for Ukrainians to side with the Nazis in the same way that the Finns did. "Enemy of my enemy" etc. It's not inconceivable that a conscripted Ukrainian POW would tell the Germans "I want to work with you guys," be completely earnest and be a trusted associate..

Unfortunately, there's a long history of virulent anti-Semitism in Ukraine so it also makes sense that he'd be put to work in a concentration camp and relish his job.

I feel obligated to mention that I don't think that every Ukrainian of the time hated Jews. However, I don't think it was a particularly rare sentiment.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:33 AM on December 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: I absolutely agree that this is important stuff, and I think we're in agreement on a lot of other points. By "we" there I meant "those of us who are discussing it here without having pored through the sources on this topic" rather than "humanity at large."

I just have a knee-jerk reaction to attempts to classify him as either a Nazi or a victim when it's clear that the truth is complicated and that we probably need an entirely new category to deal with it.
posted by besonders at 5:39 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


it's hard to give credence to any argument put forth by people who allow their own government(s) to torture and murder with impunity.
posted by kitchenrat at 5:49 AM on December 1, 2009


as a ukranian, he might have had his own reasons for joining an anti soviet group. it's also possible that once he did so, he committed his service without knowing what he would actually be doing. as for what happened afterwards, well ... that's what trials are for.

in one sense, i'm ready to forgive, if i have that right. after all, who here was even alive when this happened? might it finally be time to show the mercy that was so rare in those evil days? wishing more pain upon this person in a quest to bring him to justice is less for justince and more for revenge.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 5:56 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


kitchenrat, we don't have time to wait for the righteous to stand up for us. maybe that's what Demanjujk thought, too.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 6:07 AM on December 1, 2009


The power to admit you were wrong, change, and do better tomorrow is the beginning of everything. The man against whom these people seek revenge no longer exists. No evidence of more recent sadism, or torture, or murder will be brought. The prosecutors must hang their case on a thread of guilty spiritual projection. This man is transparently a scapegoat for German guilt.
posted by jock@law at 6:08 AM on December 1, 2009


If Germany was going to aggressively prosecute Nazis, this is 60 years too late

We should note that it was not in any sense Germany's decision to go easy on Nazis. At that point in history what "Germany" even was, was a decision being hammered out by the Allies and the Soviet Union. "Germany" wasn't doing much of anything. There was a case to be made that all teachers, judges, cops, etc. had to be replaced, since it was unconscionable to let former Nazis continue in those functions, but then replacing all of them would have been impossible; and there was also the idea that if Germany's infrastructure were basically turned upside-down it would once more be a breeding ground for fascism. The Russians did a much more thorough job of de-Nazifying, especially as they were able to replace a lot of functionaries with exiled Communists, which the West was reluctant to do for various reasons. And in retrospect the Allies seem to have been right: less de-Nazification seems to have been conducive to creating a stable democratic society with liberal values.

But the point remains: the Allies let a great many terrible war criminals and sociopaths go free for various reasons. This is the list of the prosecuted -- not very long. Speer only got 20 years. Does Demjanjuk belong in that list? Perhaps it will turn out that he belongs right alongside Göring, but I think the state had better be damn sure they have some good evidence of this. Otherwise, they're pursuing justice inconsistently at best, and at worst they're harassing a poor sick old man who already served 7 years for crimes he didn't commit.
posted by creasy boy at 6:19 AM on December 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


This man is transparently a scapegoat for German guilt.

Or he's a Nazi murderer. That's why they're having a trial.

The prosecutors are just following orders, I'm sure.
posted by inigo2 at 6:19 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


There should be no sympathy for the devil, and here on earth the closest we've had to the devil were the nazis.

The single most frightening feature of the devil is that he wears a human face.

I have had the odd privilege of meeting an SS guard (he was the father of my photo teacher). On one hand, he was a frail, yet polite old man whose worst days were far behind him, on the other, he was, y'know, a Nazi. How you reconcile this is up to you, but it was the first time I had to draw that fine line between compassion for my fellow man and hatred of their actions. I ended up shaking his hand.

(Did I just defend a Nazi!? Dear God. I guess I can get my liberal academic card stamped for real now... *sigh*)
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:20 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Everyone else was doing it too" wasn't an accepted defense in primary school and it's not an acceptable defense here either. Whether any of us would become a murderer to save our lives is irrelevant. Choosing to survive as a murderer means choosing to be a murderer. Penalties may apply.

And while I don't doubt the sincerity of Burhanistan's "cash in" comment - nor have any opinion on its likely validity - its resemblance to anti-Semitic stereotyping makes it a grotesque statement in this particular context.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:59 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


What a ridiculous thread. It was good to see some spots of humanity, but jeesuuus.

I like working myself up into cartoonish Nazi hate and watching that part in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the one Nazi's face melts like so much delicious butter, but c'mon: According to the posted links, the guy was at best, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn't design policy or orchestrate anything- he was a paid-by-the-hour Nazi.

While we're at it, let's track down the remaining Hollerith engineers who helped design punch cards for the Nazis during their tenure at IBM. Let's bust into some upscale NY nursing homes and drag those guys off to final justice. Every last Jr. Assistant to Punchcard Layout Subsection Logistics should pay for their part in humankind's ultimate crime.

Showboating legal move, doubtlessly it's election season or something for the relevant prosecutors.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:30 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


You are comparing people who worked for companies that did business with the Nazis to prison camp guards and it should be little surprise that your argument is the weaker for it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:36 AM on December 1, 2009


While we're at it, let's track down the remaining Hollerith engineers

While we're at it, let's slide down the slippery slope.
posted by blucevalo at 7:45 AM on December 1, 2009


Joe Beese wrote: "Everyone else was doing it too" wasn't an accepted defense in primary school and it's not an acceptable defense here either. Whether any of us would become a murderer to save our lives is irrelevant. Choosing to survive as a murderer means choosing to be a murderer. Penalties may apply.

I dare say that I have a place in my heart for a little moral relativism when a person is confronted with a choice between killing and being killed. It doesn't make collaboration with Nazis "right," or "good," but that sort of faustian bargain makes it to my mind at least somewhat defensible.

There is a sort of purgatory in this world where one can have committed an undeniably bad act, yet still not deserve to be condemned for it. (See: killing in self defense)

Similarly, in a situation where a person's child was abducted and they were forced to commit a crime by the perpetrators, I would not be inclined to convict them of the crime they were forced to commit.
posted by wierdo at 7:50 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, you got me, Pope Guilty and and blucevalo. Sloppy ethical argumentation this morning.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:51 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty wrote: You are comparing people who worked for companies that did business with the Nazis to prison camp guards and it should be little surprise that your argument is the weaker for it.

I dare say it's not a weak argument at all. Those computers were part of the system that enabled the mass execution of Jews and others in Nazi Germany. Chances are, without them, many fewer would have been murdered.
posted by wierdo at 7:53 AM on December 1, 2009


On not-preview, I should have put an "efficient" in there. The computers enabled the efficient mass executions. Without them, it would have been far more difficult to enforce the policy.
posted by wierdo at 7:55 AM on December 1, 2009




koeselitz: Demanjuik probably shouldn't be summarily convicted and executed

One thing we can say for certain is that he will not be executed, because he is being tried in the EU.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:58 AM on December 1, 2009


availablelight: “Scores of high ranking Nazis (including architects of the holocaust--not just the "order followers") were free to go--or free to go with light sentences--by Germany and other European nations in the post-war years.”

Who?

“Here we have a kapo from Ukraine--one of the "subhuman races lower than the Jews" in the eyes of the Nazis themselves--and he's getting the full-bore, Trial at Nuremburg treatment.”

What happened at Treblinka was in many ways the very lowest point, not only of that war, but of humanity in the last five hundred years. A large number of eyewitnesses - not only in Israel but in the US in 1977 - have said that Demanjiuk held a position of authority at Treblinka, with their various stories placing him in a range of capacities from a simple SS guard (he apparently had the tattoo to prove it) up to the man called Ivan "Grozny" Marchenko by the Soviets. The reports that he was Ivan Marchenko are supported by the fact that Demanjiuk gave the name Marchenko as his mother's name on his 1951 Visa application.

On Demanjiuk's side, all we have is a man who lied when he entered the US, lied when he got his US citizenship, lied numerous times when he was confronted over the years, and he even seems to have lied somewhat to the US authorities. The worst thing about these lies is that they tell us absolutely nothing; a person totally innocent of the terrible crimes of which he is accused could be expected in the circumstances to lie, too, so we can't infer guilt from his lying. For example, Demanjiuk claims he put Marchenko down on his Visa application simply because he blanked, because he wanted to lie about his true name, and because Marchenko was a common enough Ukrainian name that it was the first to spring to mind. This sounds like a story that's altogether too dumb for him to have made it up, but of course what proof can we possibly have either way? In lieu of hard evidence it seems we have to trust the defendant when he says that he was where he says he was.

“If Germany was going to aggressively prosecute Nazis, this is 60 years too late--and a pathetic stand-in for a "real Nazi" at that.”

Is the right thing to do not the right thing to do because it happens later than it should have? Surely the bringing of Demanjiuk to trial isn't itself a condemnation. It seems like a good thing for us still to be trying to uncover what must have happened at Treblinka. Most people I know don't even know what or where Treblinka was.
posted by koeselitz at 8:05 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also interesting:

Demjanjuk claims he is a victim of mistaken identity. He has said that after his capture he was forced to fight against the Soviets as they approached Berlin in World War II's final months.


Is this is any way better? Fighting off the Soviets meant delaying the liberation of the camps.

Günter Grass has claimed that in his time in the SS he never fired a shot or took part in any war crimes, but if that's true then it's just a matter of luck. Once you end up in the SS you were made to help the war effort one way or another and I don't imagine you had much of a choice how. Grass could just as easily have been made camp guard somewhere, and then what would he have done?
posted by creasy boy at 8:10 AM on December 1, 2009


Those computers were part of the system that enabled the mass execution of Jews and others in Nazi Germany.

So was Martin Luther's raging antisemitism which contributed to and added legitimacy to antisemitism in Europe and particularly in Germany. So was the manufacture of diesel engines. So was the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War I.

How far back do you want to go? How far removed from the actual business of murder do you need to be before you are less culpable than a murderer?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:15 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


“Scores of high ranking Nazis (including architects of the holocaust--not just the "order followers") were free to go--or free to go with light sentences--by Germany and other European nations in the post-war years.”

Who?


There's this guy.
posted by creasy boy at 8:21 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


creasy boy: “Is this is any way better? Fighting off the Soviets meant delaying the liberation of the camps.?”

Yes, it is better. In a sort of hand-wavey way, you can say that butterflies that flap their wings are probably guilty for the extermination of whole species, but the statement that someone is guilty of the murder of thousands is still a meaningful one. It means that he himself stood holding the switch knowing what it would do, knowing that it was within his power entirely to do whatever he thought was right, and that he even so flipped the switch over and over and over again until many tens of thousands of people were dead. That is different from being forced to carry a rudimentary firearm on a cold eastern front and fight against an advancing army of which you had little hope of killing one or two, let alone enough to stop their march.

jock@law: “The power to admit you were wrong, change, and do better tomorrow is the beginning of everything. The man against whom these people seek revenge no longer exists. No evidence of more recent sadism, or torture, or murder will be brought. The prosecutors must hang their case on a thread of guilty spiritual projection. This man is transparently a scapegoat for German guilt.”

I'm sorry to bring profession into it, but that's a standard defense attorney posture that has some serious flaws. First of all, Demanjiuk has admitted nothing and said nothing about being wrong; he says he did nothing wrong. In fact, the only thing we seem to know for certain about him is that he's lied consistently since he first came to the US.

Secondly and more importantly, if "the man" who allegedly slaughtered those many tens of thousands at Treblinka "no longer exists," is there really such a thing as crime anyhow? I can say that the man who stole that money yesterday was a different man, and that through spiritual advancement I've overcome my past faults and moved on. Fine; aren't I still guilty of a crime? Doesn't society still have to deal with my crime? It was a long time ago, but society has a duty to consider and to remember what happened there. Or is the desire to understand this event, the desire to finally hear the truth about this man's part in it, really just up to German guilt?
posted by koeselitz at 8:25 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


it's hard to give credence to any argument put forth by people who allow their own government(s) to torture and murder with impunity.

Feeling rather self-righteous today, are we?

If only those without sin are allowed to cast stones... nobody would ever get to condemn anybody else and everybody would get away with everything. Every government has done shit things in the near past or are still doing them today.
posted by kmz at 8:27 AM on December 1, 2009


Pope Guilty wrote: How far back do you want to go? How far removed from the actual business of murder do you need to be before you are less culpable than a murderer?"

Well, given that it was known by the early 40s that Germany was exterminating Jews, I think it's fair to say that anyone who willingly helped the German state after that point is at least as culpable as a person who killed Jews under duress.
posted by wierdo at 8:37 AM on December 1, 2009


koeselitz: you keep talking about Treblinka, but as I understand it, being Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka and being a guard at Sobidor are mutually exclusive. So if the state is now suing him for being a guard at Sobidor they would have to argue that he was definitely not Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka. Not that being a guard at Sobidor is a good thing, but there's no reason to confuse the issue.
posted by creasy boy at 8:38 AM on December 1, 2009


Ah - true. My mistake; I thought he was being tried again for the Treblinka allegations, whereas it's for being in the SS at Sobidor. Sorry.
posted by koeselitz at 8:47 AM on December 1, 2009


owillis : There should be no sympathy for the devil, and here on earth the closest we've had to the devil were the nazis. Who cares if he's frail? He's a fricking nazi, and the victims of nazism were in far worse condition than this sorry excuse.

You know who else you could say that about? The frickin' pope! Let me know when his trial starts.

Sorry, but "Nazi" just means he worked for the losing side in WWII. It doesn't make him a murderer, it doesn't make him personally responsible for 18 million, or 6 million, or 29 thousand deaths. Not to say he didn't do anything reprehensible, but the "evidence" in this trial will make a complete mockery of anything even remotely resembling a modern Western criminal justice system.

Personally, I think Burhanistan's quote from Esquire says it all. As a judge in this case, I would hold every single person who once swore to him as Ivan, in contempt for now swearing to him as some other random target of their vitriol. But of course that won't happen, because the Germans so greatly fear any connection to their own past that they'll burn their own grandmothers at the stake for the witch-taint of Naziism.
posted by pla at 8:50 AM on December 1, 2009


“Scores of high ranking Nazis (including architects of the holocaust--not just the "order followers") were free to go--or free to go with light sentences--by Germany and other European nations in the post-war years.”

Who?


Seriously, koeselitz?

I don't have time to get into this right now, but you could start here and scroll to the bottom for a start. (These are just the high-profile folks, not including your everyday SS average-Johann murderers who went back to the factory or the police department or the accounting office, whether in Germany, Poland, Austria, the Allied nations, etc.)
posted by availablelight at 8:53 AM on December 1, 2009


Link for police department
posted by availablelight at 8:54 AM on December 1, 2009


I mentioned that documentary on the Sobibor uprising above because of that point about the guards choosing to fire on the escaping prisoners, which to me is an act worth judging for its criminality. The prisoners had succeeded in killing a number of senior German officers and in the chaos of the escape, a guard could have at least aimed to miss with very little expectation of any repercussions. But that's not what happened. Now I'm sure I'm not in possession of all the facts, nor will this be the only incident of a similar nature, but seems to me that's sufficient for a question of criminal culpability to arise.
posted by Abiezer at 9:00 AM on December 1, 2009


Next up... show trials for the crew of the Enola Gay.
posted by fairmettle at 9:02 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


He hasn't been convicted yet, and has already been absolved of prior allegations.

After RTFA, it looks like the question the court is deciding is to what degree he is personally responsible for following orders, or at least this is what his legal representation is arguing. It doesn't look like the issue of his guilt for murdering innocent people is in dispute. From reading the fine article, that is.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:03 AM on December 1, 2009


At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, it comes down to this guy had to follow orders to kill or else he would have been killed and another man would be told to take his place. That doesn't excuse his actions, but who knows how they will really respond to this kind of situation until they are actually confronted with it. That doesn't excuse him, but it's certainly an aspect to weigh when passing judgment from afar when one isn't even tasked to do so.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:07 AM on December 1, 2009


That doesn't excuse him

Thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:08 AM on December 1, 2009


....and one more unprosecuted Nazi, from the FPP.

Like Demjanjuk, he too fled to the United States at the end of World War II and has already been put on trial for his crimes. Unlike Demjanjuk, however, no one is hunting Hajda - not even Germany. ....In 1997 a U.S. court ruled that Hajda had "without doubt" committed the crimes attributed to him....There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others from Russia, Hungary, Romania and the former Yugoslavia in similar situations - elderly retirees who served in Nazi camps and fled to the U.S. after the war. Over the years 107 of them have been detained by U.S. authorities and had their citizenship revoked. In Europe, however, few seem to care.

Eli Rosenbaum, head of the U.S. Justice Department bureau that investigates potential crimes against humanity, knows their names well. Europe has abandoned its moral and legal responsibility over Nazi crimes," he said, singling out Germany as having thwarted every U.S. attempt to return Nazi criminals to the Continent.

posted by availablelight at 9:13 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


BBC Global News had a large story about Demjanjuk that was remarkably detailed. A timeline of his service both in the Red Army and as a camp guard; his trial in Israel and much more. Listen to it.
posted by boo_radley at 9:25 AM on December 1, 2009


I'm sorry to bring profession into it, but that's a standard defense attorney posture that has some serious flaws. First of all, Demanjiuk has admitted nothing and said nothing about being wrong; he says he did nothing wrong. In fact, the only thing we seem to know for certain about him is that he's lied consistently since he first came to the US.

Actually, if anything, it's a standard Advent/new liturgical year posture. But that's okay - I'm amused when people try to pidgeonhole me as too liberal or too conservative. Cf. others' general accusations of being too aligned with The Man when discussing allegations (some definitely valid, others perhaps less so) of police brutality.

Demanjiuk has admitted to things, and some of those things are wrong. He has just not publicly admitted to every last unspeakable horror people have accused him of throughout the decades since the fall of the Reich. Either way, he has lived 64 years - a lifetime for many - without committing another such crime. What purpose is served by humiliating him now? Revenge isn't an acceptable answer; governments don't have the right to wreak vengeance.

There's a reason we have statutes of limitations. While they almost never apply to murder, I think maybe they should. All of us have demons. This man seems to have defeated his, or at the very least - though perhaps by no virtue of his own - is no longer controlled by them. It's a waste of prosecutorial resources to try him instead of others who, while kicking up fewer campaign donations and headlines, are a higher recidivism danger. This isn't motivated by a neutral desire to see justice done. It's motivated by hatred and alienation of a sick old man, which is just as evil and twisted a state of mind as hatred and alienation of an ethnic minority. The indignities, humiliation, and destruction that man will visit upon man in order to imagine himself more pure is at the heart of the Holocaust, and it's at the heart of this prosecution.
posted by jock@law at 9:42 AM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, 70 comments and no mention of Milgram? Metafilter, I'm disappointed.
posted by jock@law at 9:48 AM on December 1, 2009


The BBC News story had a lot of information. It sounds like he was definitely a guard in two camps, and that means he's guilty of something, and as far as I can tell this will be the first time someone has ever been prosecuted just for being a camp guard. I'll be really interested in hearing the sentence.
posted by creasy boy at 9:51 AM on December 1, 2009


What's the use in wasting public resources to prosecute this clown? He's going to be dead in a short while anyway.

I think a much worse fate is having to live in society, knowing that everyone who knows what you did looks down on you to some extent.
posted by reenum at 12:08 PM on December 1, 2009


abu: I'm pretty sure they didn't let Ukranian Red Army POWs into the SS.

I don't know if you're right or not: the British Free Corps were made up of British POWs and there was a SS Division which included Ukranians. This article suggests Russian POWs did enlist into the German army to get out from horrific prison camps, so...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:44 PM on December 1, 2009


“I've never doubted that even as a prisoner and a Jew, I would have done whatever would have kept me alive; and while it's pretty to think that I might've used whatever drop of strength I had to strike a blow, to brain one enemy, to die on my feet rather than live on my knees, I see little evidence for this in the actual course of my actual life, and I also thank God for never putting such a test in front of me. I've failed much easier."

I don’t know about the Scott Raab quote from Esquire… At least for me. Moral courage comes easy for me, but that’s when it’s black and white. I can’t think of a case where I wouldn’t oppose a deliberately evil action, much knowingly cooperate with it. Death camp – pretty high up on the list there. No question I’d die first.
I’m not casting aspersions, different people have their thing. Mine is pretty solid here.
Where it breaks down for me is where it gets gray. As some of the discussion here touches on. Do you continue to pay taxes to a government during a war you disagree with? Do you aid indirect action? Do you aid direct action? I’d die before being a prison guard in a death camp. Easy one (for me). But what would I do as an ordinary German citizen in 1939? I really don’t know.
I mean – where do you start? And if you have a family, what then? You can’t just go throwing your life away and leaving your family to the mercies of the Nazi state. That would be a tough call for me now. It is easy to die for an honorable cause and an explicit situation. It’s a bit tougher to suck that up and take the hits because if you don’t your kids grow up without a dad (in my case).
It seems to me that ambiguity makes more cowards than coercion. Not that this is a condemnation of anyone in particular, just seems something all humans are prone to and something tyrants make the most of. And maybe people don’t want to know. Because maybe then they might have to do something about it.

Which is why I think the trial is important. But as it concerns this particular guy? I don’t know. There are genocides going on even now. And I think it’s that ambiguity – well, what do we do about it without ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z’ and how do we get involved, etc. that gives the go ahead to put this guy up for something 60-odd years ago when there’s mass bloodshed now.

Yeah, the ICC levied charges against al-Bashir last year (and in fact the African Union Panel on Darfur wants hybrid courts to compliment the ICCs). But there’s been all kinds of violations of the arms embargo.
Which tells you something about how people are thinking about this modern 'conflict.'

So I think there is a sort of ambiguity people fall into like a fog even though there’s no real ambiguity at all. (Gerard Prunier gets into this in his book on Darfur).
In some places there is a distortion of the language and I think this is by design by the perpetrators, but it is reiterated. And I think it is easier to reiterate and accept this, maintain distance, than it is to confront it from there.
Some Nazi sticks a gun in my face, tells me to kill 1,000 people or he kills me, I’d die with my hands at his throat.
Some smooth PR guy tells me there’s this internal problem going on, it’s complex, both sides are distorting the situation and you know how hard it is to get a straight answer when a war is going on, and the prisoners over in this area are sewing uniforms, etc. Tough to confront and oppose that with the same kind of outrage and vigor. And you have a family too, don't you mein herr?
Primo Levi http://www.amazon.com/This-Man-Truce-Primo-Levi/dp/0349100136
focuses on what people will do under extreme circumstances and their moral degrees from corruption to honorable to sainted.
He makes a statement about judgment (elegantly):
"You who live safe
In your warm houses,

posted by Smedleyman at 5:07 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I just don't see what a second trial will accomplish, other than making the German authorities look incredibly foolish and cruel.

Well, urm, not that there's a pattern here or anything.
posted by bardic at 6:24 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just don't see what a second trial will accomplish,

I would hope that it will discover the truth. I hope that either John Demjanjuk will walk free, his name cleared; or he stand condemned as someone who bought his comfort at the cost of thousands of human lives. And if it's the latter then murderers around the world will sleep a little less easy in their beds, knowing that we still found it worth exposing the truth, even sixty years later.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:23 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I would hope that it will discover the truth."

But there's already been a trial, and the spectacle of a sick 89 year-old being grilled in 90 minute intervals will probably backfire.

The truth is that selective justice is ugly.
posted by bardic at 8:10 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't handle the truth.
posted by mazola at 9:13 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


He had the choice to release the inner demon and work for the Nazis, or to die.
my information is that he chose to work there and wasn't drafted. he wasn't a prisoner. his lawyer did not object to that description of him in court earlier today. that's a pretty significant choice he made. you're making apologies for someone who chose to collaborate with nazis.

classify him as either a victim or a perpetrator when there are meaningful ways in which he's both.
attempts at classifying someone like him as anything near a victim really get under my skin. it's despicable and disrespectful to do so.

I presume that, unlike you, the German court is ready to entertain the possibility that he is in fact innocent of the charges.
yes, but demjanjuk's defense isn't that he wasn't there in the first place and that this is a case of mistaken identity (that claim had come up, thus the elaborate checking of this worker id card), it's that he was there but had no idea about the gas chambers. this is a camp that did nothing but kill inmates. it wasn't a work camp. it wasn't a detention camp. it was a death camp. arrive, die as quickly as possible, bury. his claim couldn't be more ridiculous if it had been made on tmz.

Demanjuik probably shouldn't be summarily convicted and executed without long consideration and thought about what it all means.
we don't have the death penalty in germany and I assume it's pretty clear how we got to the conclusion that only a barbaric nation would permit such an atrocity. the most he could get is about 15 years, which is roughly the timeframe after which inmates convicted to a lifetime in prison come up for parole. we also don't do multiple life sentences or ridiculous amounts like 300 years or rule out the possibility of parole. that's mickey mouse justice. the only thing we do allow for is the option for safekeeping even after they have served their sentences in specific cases. demjanjuk, being 89 years old, should not expect to get out of jail before death if convicted.

If Germany was going to aggressively prosecute Nazis, this is 60 years too late--and a pathetic stand-in for a "real Nazi" at that.
you seem to not know there have been significant prosecutions for decades.
posted by krautland at 9:42 PM on December 1, 2009


The indignities, humiliation, and destruction that man will visit upon man in order to imagine himself more pure is at the heart of the Holocaust, and it's at the heart of this prosecution.

I think you've really lost your way there, I honestly do.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:07 AM on December 2, 2009


I would hope that it will discover the truth."

But there's already been a trial ...


Yes, as a matter of fact. There was a trial in the USA because it was suggested that he had lied to immigration officials. The finding was that yes, he had lied, and that despite his denials he had volunteered to work at a death camp. John Demjanjuk maintains his denial - he claims that he went from being a POW to being in the German army fighting against the Soviet Union. Now he's being tried on a more serious charge than lying to immigration officials. The factual basis is the same, but (a) it's a different country and (b) the standard of necessary proof is probably higher. But you're quite right: there was already a trial, and John Demjanjuk lost.

the spectacle of a sick 89 year-old being grilled in 90 minute intervals will probably backfire.


In what way? Will "the spectacle" cause people to start dragging Jews and Roma out of cattle cars, beating them and murdering them in gas chambers?
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:59 AM on December 2, 2009


No, it will make even more people think this is a publicity stunt above all else.
posted by bardic at 2:19 AM on December 2, 2009


A publicity stunt? Do tell. Is it to increase public awareness of the German court system? Or was it dreamed up by the Sobibor Tourism Board? Or ... no, don't tell me ... is it a conspiracy? I'm right, aren't I?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:06 AM on December 2, 2009


krautland wrote: my information is that he chose to work there and wasn't drafted. he wasn't a prisoner. his lawyer did not object to that description of him in court earlier today. that's a pretty significant choice he made. you're making apologies for someone who chose to collaborate with nazis.

A choice made under duress is not a choice. It's the illusion of choice. When your choices are death/starvation and not death/starvation, biology has something significant to say about it.
posted by wierdo at 7:34 AM on December 2, 2009


Oh, and also, one can be both a victim and a perpetrator. That does not make their crimes any less despicable, but it can go a long way to explaining them, even if not excusing them.
posted by wierdo at 7:35 AM on December 2, 2009


The Demjanjuk prosecution doesn't particularly make me feel like we're committed to rooting out the evils of Nazism and genocide. I personally would feel more like the world was committed to it if they were working on stopping ongoing genocides instead of chasing down little guys like Demnjanjuk who should have been convicted 60 years ago if meaningful justice was to be had against them.

Of course, Tom Lehrer and Peter Sellers really nailed the deal about justice for Nazi officials back in the 60s with their satires on Wernher von Braun. Von Braun was a useful scientist, though, not a low-level grunt, so we put him to work instead of trying him for his crimes. (Note: the V-2 rockets were constructed using concentration camp labor.)

It's that inconsistency that bothers me about the long-term pursuit of Demjanjuk (this case has been going on since 1981) more than the question of double jeopardy or whether Demnjanjuk is this particular guard or how much ethical responsibility he bears under whatever coercion or circumstances of a lifetime (65 years) ago. I'm not entirely sure who or what putting Demnjanjuk on trial again serves, but I suspect a large part of it is the world's sense of self-righteousness.
posted by immlass at 8:14 AM on December 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Demjanjuk is not really on trial here, he just gets the dubious distinction of representing a particular cog in a terrible machine. I suspect this is a means of putting the entire Wachmänner on trial, not that there is any interest is actively pursuing individual cases. A single high profile case is sufficient to make those living with dark secrets wrestle with their conscious one last time before they die. So that they, at the very least, will not escape their own self-judgement. As if they would not.

Is it fair that Demjanjuk take the center-stage role? Were his deeds worse than his peers? Who knows. He certainly wasn't an architect of these atrocities. There is no evidence that he was especially committed to the killings or exceptionally brutal. Indeed, he was not shown to be Ivan the Terrible after all. What we are reasonably certain of is that he was at Sobibor which means he was likely privy to -- and participated in -- something dark. The prosecution can feel at ease using him as a puppet without fear that they are maliciously prosecuting someone truly innocent. He must be guilty of something.

What does justice mean in the context of genocide? In the end, the 27,000+ victims at Sobibor would surely have perished with or without the hand of John Demjanjuk.

As immlass points out, the greatest honor we can bestow upon the Holocaust's countless victims is to dismantle the evil that walks among us now.
posted by mazola at 12:20 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


What we are reasonably certain of is that he was at Sobibor which means he was likely privy to -- and participated in -- something dark.

I am particularly troubled because it isn't clear to me that (barring it be shown that he was Ivan Grozny or the like) Demjanjuk was more responsible than your average German adult at the time. He had the unfortunate distinction of being capture by German forces while fighting against them and was thus presented with a rather horrible choice... but the mass of the German populace was actively contributing to the war effort and (at the least) passively accepting the atrocities. And they didn't have the excuse that they were caught fighting against the Wehrmacht on the battlefield.

Demjanjuk seems, to me, almost exactly as responsible for 29,000 murders as virtually every German adult at the time was responsible for 14,000,000 murders. I am also quite troubled that one of the biggest and likely the last high profile prosecution by the German government relating to the war is of, wait for it, a Ukrainian. For many people it may be a way to expiate guilt without accepting it.

How about trying the entire adult German populace from 1936-1945 in absentia along with Demjanjuk? How is he more guilty than they? He was forced to choose between his life and being a cog in a very big and very evil machine. They don't even have that excuse.
posted by Justinian at 1:31 PM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's the illusion of choice. When your choices are death/starvation and not death/starvation, biology has something significant to say about it.

He claims that rather than choose to work in a death camp and kill Jews he chose to go be a soldier and kill Russian soldiers. This has been found to be a lie, but apparently Demjanjuk thinks it's something he might have done, if he had made other choices. So even assuming that being a POW meant death/starvation, Demjanjuk himself says that he had a choice of career paths.

I am particularly troubled because it isn't clear to me that (barring it be shown that he was Ivan Grozny or the like) Demjanjuk was more responsible than your average German adult at the time.

The allegation is that he was one of a group of death camp guards (for want of a better word) that were responsible for taking Jews off cattle cars, stripping them of clothes and possessions, and killing them. I can totally understand your philosophical point that every person supporting or assisting Nazi Germany in any way shares responsibility, yada yada yada, but the fact is that this person is alleged to have killed hundreds or thousands of people with his own hands. Which is a practical distinction, if not a philosophical one.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:29 PM on December 2, 2009


"I am also quite troubled that one of the biggest and likely the last high profile prosecution by the German government relating to the war is of, wait for it, a Ukrainian."

Truer words etc.
posted by bardic at 6:26 PM on December 2, 2009


He claims that rather than choose to work in a death camp and kill Jews he chose to go be a soldier and kill Russian soldiers. This has been found to be a lie, but apparently Demjanjuk thinks it's something he might have done, if he had made other choices. So even assuming that being a POW meant death/starvation, Demjanjuk himself says that he had a choice of career paths.

Fighting against the Red Army would involve killing his own countrymen. I find it quite plausible that given three terrible options a Ukrainan soldier would choose to become a camp guard (relatively safe) rather than be sent to fight on the Eastern Front against his own countrymen (which he would almost certainly regard as a probable death sentence). Additionaly, he would likely prefer either of those options to dying in a German camp.

And, lastly, I find it also quite plausible that when brought up on capital war crimes charges he would say that he was fighting on the east front rather than working as a camp guard. He would say that whether he was an abomination like Ivan Grozny or a regular soldier who through circumstance and the very human unwillingness to sacrifice himself uselessly by dying in an unmarked grave along with millions of other prisoners became part of an evil machine.

So I am unsure of the point you're getting at. That he claimed to have been on the Front instead of a camp guard isn't evidence of anything except that he didn't want to be executed by Israel.
posted by Justinian at 7:32 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


It seems my thinking about the case in this thread has actually pushed me towards the conclusion that trying Demjanjuk, unless there is evidence that tells us something beyond establishing he was a camp guard, is the wrong thing to do. Which disturbs me as I am not in the habit of defending, even on technical points like this, guards at Nazi camps. Which shows how complicated this case is. I am left with the hope that they have additional evidence that we are unaware of showing Demjanjuk to be a soulless monster. Which is also a disturbing thing to wish.

In 15 years or so every last person who participated in these events (save people in the camps as young children) will be dead. I dunno how to feel about that either.
posted by Justinian at 7:40 PM on December 2, 2009


Fighting against the Red Army would involve killing his own countrymen. I find it quite plausible that given three terrible options a Ukrainan soldier would choose to become a camp guard (relatively safe) rather than be sent to fight on the Eastern Front against his own countrymen (which he would almost certainly regard as a probable death sentence).

You do not seem to be aware that in 1945 he joined the German-allied Vlasov Army, an army formed for the specific purpose of attacking the Soviet Union. And you know what? I don't think that the patriotism you impute to him - which isn't a claim that he makes, you know, you're still putting words into his mouth - would justify him murdering thousands of children.

And, lastly, I find it also quite plausible that when brought up on capital war crimes charges he would say that he was fighting on the east front rather than working as a camp guard.

Of course it's plausible. That's what happened. Why would you think that this exonerates him?

I am left with the hope that they have additional evidence that we are unaware of showing Demjanjuk to be a soulless monster.

Have you actually considered what training at Trawniki and working as a guard at Sobibor entailed? The training required that you round up and murder unarmed people. Working as a "guard" meant that you evicted unarmed people - men, women, infants - from the cattle cars that had brought them, and then force them along the path to the gas chambers. The victims would frequently know what was happening; the guards would beat them, killing them if necessary. There was no reason to refrain from any act of brutality as the prisoners would be dead within a few minutes anyway. The path to the gas chambers was about 100 yards long, incidentally. The next time you go outside, consider how short a distance this is, and for how many thousands of people this brief push along a barbed wire alley was the last walk of their life.

Now, I don't say that the guards were soulless monsters. But that's not the question, is it? I'm sure you don't mean to suggest that a passion for Mozart and fine dining ought to be an excuse for murder. And this man murdered so many, many people.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:26 PM on December 2, 2009


Of course it's plausible. That's what happened. Why would you think that this exonerates him?

I didn't say it exonerates him, I said that the lie implies nothing either way. It neither proves him guilty of anything nor exonerates him.

You do not seem to be aware that in 1945 he joined the German-allied Vlasov Army, an army formed for the specific purpose of attacking the Soviet Union.

Of course I am aware that he joined the Vlasov Army in 1945. We have no idea what "joined" means in this context. We can't talking meaningfully of volunteering when we're talking about Red Army prisoners of war under Nazi Germany; I'm not sure you fully understand how Soviet prisoners were treated. Several million captured Soviet soldiers died in the camps, close to 2/3 of all captured soldiers. I don't think it is reasonable to say that a Soviet POW is a volunteer no different than an Austrian or German or one of the guys who formed the SS Wiking division. Two-thirds of these POWs were killed. If the war had lasted long enough they no doubt all would have been killed (as would all the Jews, Romani, etc).

I also note that much of the Vlasov army re-defected just as soon as they could, that during the one real combat units in that army engaged in against Russia as many surrendered as possible, and so on. All the evidence is that the rank and file were just trying to survive. Yeah, Vlasov and the top brass were likely virulent anti-Communists, but the troops themselves generally give all appearance of being about as eager to engage in combat as I am. Which is to say: not at all.

And you know what? I don't think that the patriotism you impute to him - which isn't a claim that he makes, you know, you're still putting words into his mouth - would justify him murdering thousands of children.

He doesn't have to be patriotic not to want to fight against his former soldiers, he just has to not be stupid. Had he been conscripted earlier than '45 when he joined the Vlasov army his survival odds would no doubt have been poor at best. I can't say for sure since I'm less familiar with where, when, and how former Red Army guys could have or did fight under German command pre-Vlasov. But assuming Demjanjuk believed being sent to the Eastern Front in 1943 or whatever would be a death sentence is absolute plausible and even likey.

Lastly, my whole point is that no-one has even suggested that it can be proved that Demjanjuk personally murdered thousands of anyone, much less children. If they can prove it, let him rot in jail. My understanding is the best they can do is show that he was very likely a guard at some of the camps. They can't prove what he did or did not do. Maybe he was a cook. Maybe he was responsible for cleaning the toilets. Nobody appears to know.

So my point is that if Germany is going to prosecute for genocide a 90 year old Ukrainian because he didn't stand up and get executed but decided to keep his head down and stay alive, well, they better fucking round up all their surviving mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers and clap them in irons too. Because you don't try for murder people you can't actually proved murdered anybody, only that they were forced to be around people who got murdered and may or even probably helped with part of it.

Anybody with German relatives who were adults in the early 40s likely has relatives who "helped" with part of it, too, but that would be awkward for Germany to deal with so lets go after the Untermenschen Ukrainian.
posted by Justinian at 11:07 PM on December 2, 2009


ut that's not the question, is it? I'm sure you don't mean to suggest that a passion for Mozart and fine dining ought to be an excuse for murder. And this man murdered so many, many people.

Shorter me: prove it. Prove he murdered so many people. Not that he was where people were murdered. Not that he was in a position where other people in the same position often murdered. Not even that he probably murdered people. Prove he actually murdered people or this isn't justice, it's a show trial to expiate collective guilt.
posted by Justinian at 11:09 PM on December 2, 2009


Oops, last me I promise. I got carried away and appear to have implied I don't realize the whole point of having a trial is to establish whether he was guilty. If it is indeed proven that Demjanjuk is demonstrably guilty of actually murdering people and not just being in a position where he probably did then the above doesn't apply.

My other concerns relating to the last big Nazi trial by Germany being of a Ukrainian who was forced to be there or die when native-born Germans who really did have choices have been acquitted of basically the same thing remain. But my concern there is for the bigger picture and not for Demjanjuk himself.
posted by Justinian at 11:23 PM on December 2, 2009


Update: Cornelius Nestler, attorney for the prosecution, says there is more than enough evidence that Demjanjuk willingly participated in tens of thousands of murders.
"Historians that will speak during the trial will show that Demjanjuk had many opportunities to leave. They allowed him to spend weekends outside of the camp. He received vacations. There were a lot of guards who disappeared and returned to the Ukraine and Poland."
Regardless, the trial has been delayed and will not continue until Dec. 21, because Demjanjuk's doctors say he is too ill to be transported from prison to court.
posted by brina at 2:24 AM on December 3, 2009


When your choices are death/starvation and not death/starvation, biology has something significant to say about it.
that was not his choice. he volunteered to work at this camp. that was not a decision made under duress. he was not forced.
posted by krautland at 5:14 AM on December 3, 2009


krautland wrote: "that was not his choice. he volunteered to work at this camp. that was not a decision made under duress. he was not forced."

Obviously we disagree about what 'duress' means. Being imprisoned in subhuman conditions is duress, in my opinion. Volunteering to guard a concentration camp is only voluntary in the loosest sense of the word in that situation.

I suppose you would consider a Jew that helped guide his people to the gas chamber so as to secure himself (or herself) a food ration sufficient for continued survival a 'volunteer,' since they did, strictly speaking, have the option of doing nothing and dying instead.

Or perhaps a person who enlists in the armed forces in advance of being drafted so as to secure themselves a job that doesn't involve being an infantryman? Again, strictly speaking, they volunteered for service, but only under duress.
posted by wierdo at 6:23 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Obviously we disagree about what 'duress' means. Being imprisoned in subhuman conditions is duress, in my opinion. [...]

That is an extraordinarily immoral argument. Duress is not an excuse for murder. There's a lengthy discussion of this in the case of R v Howe, a case involving a gang member who was involved in a murder and pleaded duress. This plea was rejected, and one of the arguments made went along these lines:

There must be an element of proportionality to duress. Suppose you were a cab driver, and your passenger held a knife to your throat and told you to break the speed limit. It would be hard to criticise you for doing so. Speeding (and avoiding death or injury) is a moral action because it is the lesser of two evils. But you can't claim that murder is "the lesser of two evils" even if you are threatened with death yourself. In such is "the end justifies the means" which is not a moral argument.

Anyway, Demjanjuk himself has not claimed duress. You're making up some story as to why, even though he killed thousands of people, he was somehow justified in doing so. I find it extraordinary that you, sitting behind a computer screen, are so eager to exonerate him that you will invent reasons to justify his actions - reasons that he himself would deny!
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:38 PM on December 3, 2009


Anyway, Demjanjuk himself has not claimed duress.

This is a bit disingenuous, isn't it? Demjanjuk's claim was that he wasn't at the camp at all.
posted by Justinian at 11:13 PM on December 3, 2009


wierdo: you fail to realize that he was not a prisoner at this camp before volunteering to go work there. he lived in the area and pretty much did the equivalent to responding to a job posting. this was a decision he did because he had a motive. he chose to go to work there.

I suppose you would consider
you lack the ability to make accurate assumptions about what I would consider one thing or another. you also lack situational awareness but don't let that stop you.

Duress is not an excuse for murder.
second that.

Demjanjuk's claim was that he wasn't at the camp at all.
this is not true. he has not protested his alleged presence there at the current trial at all, in spite of this being alleged multiple times.
posted by krautland at 11:38 PM on December 3, 2009


this is not true. he has not protested his alleged presence there at the current trial at all

He protested it at the last trial. I am not at all convinced that the current trial is anything but a farce.
posted by Justinian at 1:09 AM on December 4, 2009


wierdo: you fail to realize that he was not a prisoner at this camp before volunteering to go work there. he lived in the area and pretty much did the equivalent to responding to a job posting. this was a decision he did because he had a motive. he chose to go to work there.

I'm unsure what you are claiming here. He was not a prisoner at which camp? He "lived in the area"?

Are you claiming that Demjanjuk wasn't a soldier in the Red Army who was captured by German forces and put in a camp? Because you're making it sound like the dude decided a change of scenery might be nice so he moved out of his home and into a German POW camp for the food and fresh air and then one day while reading the funny pages of the local paper he saw a classified ad saying: "HELP WANTED - GENOCIDE FACILITATOR" and, hey, killin' prisoners, sign me up! Instead of, you know, doing it to avoid his nice German captors shooting him in the face or starving him to death or cutting his balls off and feeding them to him or whatever and then sticking him in an unmarked mass grave.

Something at which your countrymen did rather a lot of at the time. But that's cool because clearly it was actually all the Ukrainians fault.
posted by Justinian at 1:17 AM on December 4, 2009


He protested it at the last trial.
three times has it been dead center and three times have neither his lawyer not he himself protested at all. could have something to do with actual evidence being around this time.

I am not at all convinced that the current trial is anything but a farce.
it's not a farce. it's a trial in a court of law, not america.

Are you claiming that Demjanjuk wasn't a soldier in the Red Army who was captured by German forces and put in a camp?
I am saying he was not at that camp and wouldn't have not being brought there had he not volunteered. this was a camp solely dedicated to the speedy destruction of its inmates.
posted by krautland at 3:23 AM on December 4, 2009


krautland wrote: "I am saying he was not at that camp and wouldn't have not being brought there had he not volunteered. this was a camp solely dedicated to the speedy destruction of its inmates."

You're not denying that he was, apparently, in a POW camp where he and his fellow POWs were being beaten and starved?


Joe in Australia wrote: "That is an extraordinarily immoral argument. Duress is not an excuse for murder. There's a lengthy discussion of this in the case of R v Howe, a case involving a gang member who was involved in a murder and pleaded duress. This plea was rejected, and one of the arguments made went along these lines:
"

The circumstances of that case are not even remotely similar. Nice try on wedging that 40 pound turkey into the microwave, though.

You're arguing that if I have a gun to your head and hand you a gun and order you to shoot some person close at hand, and you do it out of fear for your life, that you should be found guilty of murder? What lala land are we living in? Murder requires intent. Intent requires choice.
posted by wierdo at 7:16 AM on December 4, 2009


You're arguing that if I have a gun to your head and hand you a gun and order you to shoot some person close at hand, and you do it out of fear for your life, that you should be found guilty of murder? What lala land are we living in? Murder requires intent. Intent requires choice.

But should you not face trial? I think it would be completely appropriate for you to be held accountable for your actions. I would not expect you'd face the same sentence as someone who did the same action completely by their own free will. Just because you made a terrible choice does not mean you can erase your action as if it never happened.

This case perplexes me and I am now of the mind that this trial should proceed. The documentary evidence placing Demjanjuk at Sobibor is quite convincing and that camp really did have only one purpose. To claim he was not at Sobibor you would need to discredit the Identity Card. It is possible the Soviets forged that, but why would they do that? What would the motive be? Is that even being claimed?

If Demjanjuk was at Sobibor by some terrible choice, then he should be accountable for that choice though not necessarily blamed.

I found it interesting to read about how other camp attendants were tried and sentenced in early trials. Included in the mix are guards, cooks, chauffeurs, and a Kapo. I would be interested to know why this Kapo was singled out. I would assume it would have been for particular cruelty. I would also assume Damjanjuk's role be more similar to the Kapo than to a true SS guard. I also found this entry about Luise Danz interesting:
In 1996, Luise Danz was tried in a German court for allegedly stamping a young girl to death at the Malchow concentration camp. The doctor overseeing the trial told the court that the proceedings were too much for the elderly woman and all charges were dropped. As of 2009 Danz is still alive at the age of 91.
posted by mazola at 9:36 AM on December 4, 2009


The only purpose of a trial is to settle some material question of fact. If the facts are that you were forced to kill someone by a third party holding you at gunpoint, you should not be tried. (Presuming that the law in your state/country recognizes duress as a defense to murder specifically or crime in general) It's a waste of time and money.

There is this thing we have (at least here in the US). It's called prosecutorial discretion. The prosecutors have all the evidence of guilt that will ever be presented at trial. If the events happened as described in the articles I've read, a reasonable prosecutor wouldn't bother to bring the case to trial.

Now, if there is in fact evidence that Demjanjuk was not coerced into his position, that changes things entirely, and a trial is appropriate to determine the veracity of that evidence and weigh it against evidence of duress or coercion.

As an aside, how is one held accountable if not by conviction and punishment? What purpose does a show trial serve?

Someone upthread said it was wrong to call Demjanjuk a victim. I disagree. He is both a victim and a perpetrator. They are not at all mutually exclusive in this situation.
posted by wierdo at 10:24 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're not denying that he was, apparently, in a POW camp where he and his fellow POWs were being beaten and starved?
I'm not denying anything about being in a POW camp though I know as much about the conditions there as you do. the only differences are that (a) you claim he was starved and beaten and (b) that that is reason enough to sign up to happily assist in the murder of about 27,000 people. this is not "a gun to your head" at all. this is "I don't want to rot in jail, so I'll take that job."
posted by krautland at 12:13 AM on December 5, 2009


this is not "a gun to your head" at all. this is "I don't want to rot in jail, so I'll take that job."

Yep, being a Soviet prisoner in a German POW camp was pretty much a day at the beach. About like your local county jail. Assuming your local county jail has a death rate of approaching 70%, that is.
posted by Justinian at 12:56 AM on December 5, 2009


You're arguing that if I have a gun to your head and hand you a gun and order you to shoot some person close at hand, and you do it out of fear for your life, that you should be found guilty of murder?

It's not (just) me arguing it: it is generally accepted in Common Law jurisdictions, including the US of A, that duress does not excuse murder. Of course, Germany is not one of these jurisdictions and I have no idea what principles they will be applying.

And, as I've said a number of times: Demjanjuk does not admit that he murdered people. You're inventing a defense that he has not chosen to take up, based on supposed facts that have never been tested in court.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:17 AM on December 5, 2009


Yep, being a Soviet prisoner in a German POW camp was pretty much a day at the beach.
oh, of course in that case I'll gladly sign up for voluntary mass murder. hey, can I make you some pancakes while we're at it? see, I can be facetious, too. besides, you made up half of your statement.

and I have no idea what principles they will be applying.
but I do. same principle.
posted by krautland at 5:43 AM on December 6, 2009


The point isn't that Demjanjuk is a great guy, it's that the German legal system making their last significant prosecution of crimes relating to the second world war be of a Ukrainian who was faced with the choice of dying himself or of becoming a guard is extremely dubious.
posted by Justinian at 11:25 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


The point isn't that Demjanjuk is a great guy, it's that the German legal system making their last significant prosecution of crimes relating to the second world war be of a Ukrainian who was faced with the choice of dying himself or of becoming a guard is extremely dubious.

You keep saying he "was faced with the choice of dying himself or of becoming a guard". That proposition has never been tested in court, and there are other POWs who did not die. Not that it should make a difference to his guilt, although I suppose it might make some difference to his culpability.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:34 PM on December 6, 2009


« Older A Long, Incomplete, and Mostly Wrong History of...   |   Cupcakes are mostly made of four elements Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post