Can This Nazi Be Brought to Justice?

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When the trial of accused Nazi prison guard — and former Ohio auto worker — John Demjanjuk began Monday in Munich, some writers warned that any real measure of justice may prove to be elusive. With little evidence, a sickly 89-year-old defendant, and most of the 27,900 witnesses dead, they say "The Last Nazi Trial" is unlikely to bring any kind of closure that can measure up to the magnitude of the crime. And some, including Demjanjuk's lawyers, have argued that he was simply a low-level prison guard who was merely following orders. But many writers think it's worth the tribulations if only to air the tragic story:

  • The World Must Hear Demjanjuk's Story  The Telegraph predicts an unsatisfying trial. "If you want a normal case, with conviction secured only on the basis of watertight evidence, you seem very unlikely to get one," they write. "If you prefer the Mossad method of a bullet in the back of the head on some quiet foreign street (“everyone knew he was guilty…”), that’s not going to happen either." But they say the world cannot miss the opportunity to remember the terrible things that we allowed to happen. "This kind of trial is about humanity remembering, trawling through the memory banks, wracking its brains and saying: 'Did this happen? Could it have really happened? How? How could we have let this happen?"
  • Only John Demjanjuk Knows What He Has Done  At Esquire, Scott Raab says we continue to be perturbed by the places and people in which we find both good and evil. In other words, Raab says that when it comes to such a "monstrous" and wide-scale crime against humanity like the Holocaust, justice is complicated.
Kudos: The last Nazi is brought to justice.


Because it is not so simple or clear, doing justice after so many years. And because doing human justice for the Holocaust — so monstrous, so far past any boundary of humanity or justice — is the sort of solemn farce that demands a last Nazi, and who better than a Ukrainian peasant? "He's very simple," his son JD says. "He's a very simple guy."

Funny thing: A less simple man might have confessed to being at Sobibor long ago — had he been at Sobibor — and spared himself and his family many years of suffering. A less simple man — had he been at Sobibor — might not have chosen to cling to a lie to protect his children for so many years from his shame. A less simple man — had he been at Sobibor — might not have let his own shame put a seal of silence on the truth.

'Nobody knows what he did,' JD says. Not so: John Demjanjuk knows.
  • A Shaky Legal Case  Katie Engelhart of Maclean's says that like many other attempts to bring Nazis to justice, the Demjanjuk trial is far from an open and shut case. Engelhart says the prosecution has its work cut out for it.
'Charges like crimes against humanity or genocide would be better suited,' offers Christoph Burchard. But such a category did not exist during the Second World War, so under German law it cannot be retroactively applied. In fact, the very grounds for trying Demjanjuk in Germany are tenuous. He was a Ukrainian who committed crimes in Poland, and Burchard stresses that while Germany has universal jurisdiction in cases of crimes against humanity, that does not apply to murder charges. To reinforce their jurisdiction over the case, Burchard speculates that prosecutors will try to portray Demjanjuk as a kind of 'German public official.' That may be a tricky designation for an ex-POW working outside the mainstream Nazi machinery.
  • No Mercy For Demjanjuk  At Ynet News, an online Jewish magazine, Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger says Demjanjuk's old age and low rank should not be deterrents to prosecuting him to the fullest extent of the law. 
Demjanjuk did not command over the extermination operation. He was not even a senior SS man, but rather, a guard, the lowest rank in the German execution units at the time. However, according to the indictment, he was a cog in the immense extermination machine built by the leaders of the Third Reich in order to resolve the 'Jewish problem.' Without those cogs, the machine would not have been able to work as efficiently as it did, and therefore there is no forgiveness, no amnesty, and no mercy.
  • ...He's Just a Ukrainian Peasant  At the Kyiv Post, a Ukrainian newspaper, Andriy Semotiuk takes a different view. He says Demjanjuk is a member of a poor Ukrainian class, or untermenschen, who are being prosecuted not because they played a large role in the Holocaust, but because Germans are unwilling to face their own guilt. "Today the German leadership appears to be targeting Demjanjuk, and other untermenschen like him as scapegoats to slough off German guilt for what happened in the concentration camps of World War II," Semotiuk writes. And he says Demjanjuk was far from an Aryan, making it unlikely that the Nazis accepted him within their ranks. "Calling him a Nazi may garner headlines, but it will not change the fact that Nazi ideology precluded non-Aryans like Demjanjuk, who was Ukrainian and, therefore, an Untermensch or subhuman. This made him ineligible to be part of the Nazi Party. As an Untermensch, it is more likely Demjanjuk was a victim of the Nazi regime than a persecutor."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.