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Demjanjuk Nazi Trial Begins Today

The trial of Ohio-resident John Demjanjuk on charges of being an accessory as a Nazi guard in the murder of 27,900 people in the Nazi death camp Sobibor in 1943 started today. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to 15 yearsthat he is extremely unlikely to fulfill. (Read here, here, here). In the early 1980s, Demjanjuk was accused of being the notorious guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka death camp. He was deported to Israel in 1986 and sentenced to death in 1988, but the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1993 after finding reasonable doubt that he was the guard in question. In 2002, the U.S. Justice Department charged Demjanjuk with being a guard at Sobibor and revoked his citizenship for lying about his Nazi past in order to gain citizenship. He was extradited to Germany in May after new evidence allowed the current charges to be brought. He cannot be tried under US law.

Demjanjuk was a Red Army soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans in May 1942 after a battle on the Crimean peninsula. The charge sheet alleges that soon after his capture, the Germans trained Mr Demjanjuk as a prison guard at an SS centre in Trawniki, Ukraine. Needing to free up troops, the Germans trained captured Ukrainians to carry out some of the dirty work in the camps. German prosecutors say they have an SS identity card bearing his name and transfer orders and they can show he was active at Sobibor from March to September 1943. In their 83-page indictment they state Demjanjuk, who was armed and was at liberty to leave the camp, could have absconded if he had wanted to, but chose to stay “and was involved with the extermination process at every step”.

One of the interesting questions raised by the trial is whether pursuing justice for someone so old and so relatively minor is justified in terms of public policy. Certainly, Demjajuk presents a pitiful sight. He is 89, a former autoworker who lived in suburban Cleveland, appeared before the court in a wheelchair, covered by a blanket. A court doctor who examined Demjanjuk on three occasions told the court he had a type of leukaemia – a rare bone marrow complaint that can affect the elderly – as well as gout, a trapped nerve in his spine and pains in his limbs, but was fit to stand trial despite his ailments and the fact that he was “a little slow” when he spoke. Judge Ralph Alt has decided that Demjanjuk will face a maximum of four hours in court a day. It can very well be argued that such was the magnitude of his crimes that he should be prosecuted. This is certainly the argument that is being used in the trial of five Khmer Rouge figures in Cambodia with an average age of a relatively sprightly 78 years. Nevertheless, the indictees here accord with the personal jurisdiction of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in that they were senior leaders in the KR or most responsible for the crimes committed. Demjanjuk, as a prison guard, falls well short of this causal seniority.

Demjanjuk’s lawyer began the trial by submitting an appeal to the judge to abandon the trial on the grounds that his client had “been a victim”. Demjanjuk listed a string of more senior camp guards who had been tried for their roles in the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland to whom he had been subordinate but had either received minimal sentences or been exonerated of any wrongdoing. So far so reasonable (if not necessarily agreeable). However, his counsel’s argument strayed bizarrely into a moral equivalence argument that, as The Guardian put it “brought gasps from the public gallery”, stating: “He is as much as victim as those people who were imprisoned in the camp but he is being treated as if he was a mass murderer, when in fact he didn’t even have any choice whether he was there or not.”

What is perhaps most significant about the case is that it throws into relief Germany’s very patchy record on  Nazi accountability which largely petered out after the famously stringent Nuremberg trials. The state prosecutor Hans Joachim Lutz told the court that previous trials of Sobibor operators had only resulted in lenient or negligible sentences “due to mistakes of the German judicial system, and [this] should not be repeated here and now”. From the end of  WWII into the 1980s, of the few Nazi trials that took place in Germany (most notably Control Council Law No. 10 trials), very many were thrown out or deemed insignificant by much of the German judiciary.

The trial of a nanogenarian minor figure in the Nazi war-machine may bring a sense of relief and vindication to the numerous Dutch and German victims and relatives at the trial. Nonetheless, it represents an ignominious end for the process of judicial accountability for Nazis that began so vigorously in Nuremberg.

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