Globe and Mail | 01Dec2009 | Naomi Buck

A 'bizarre showpiece' as Germany confronts its past
The war-crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, 89 and apparently ailing, raises some uncomfortable questions for his accusers

BERLIN -- Special to The Globe and Mail, with a report from Associated Press
John Demjanjuk appeared in the German courtroom slouched in a wheelchair, and later on a gurney under a pile of blankets. His left hand twitched occasionally and his mouth was open slightly as though he was in pain, but he remained silent when a judge asked whether he could answer basic questions.

It was an unfortunate opening to the much-publicized trial of the 89-year-old former auto worker from Ohio, who is charged with having served as a guard at the Nazi death camp Sobibor in 1943. Germany, which fought long and hard for Mr. Demjanjuk's extradition from the United States, is hoping the trial will demonstrate its continued determination to confront its Nazi past, but some observers are already referring to it as a farce.

[W.Z. This is disinformation. It was the OSI in the United States and Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center, who lobbied the Germans and finally recruited Kurt Schrimm andThomas Walther to extradite Mr. Demjanjuk.]

Despite his frail appearance and the fact he suffers from a bone marrow disease, a doctor who examined him two hours before the trial insisted he was able to participate. Mr. Demjanjuk's family disputed that.

"I find it a bizarre showpiece," said Rebecca Wittmann, associate professor of German postwar legal history at the University of Toronto, who is an observer at the trial. "Of course it's important to put Demjanjuk on trial. But the defence has good arguments - that he's a relatively unimportant character, that he's Ukrainian, not German, and that thousands of others in much higher positions - including a former guard who's set to testify against Demjanjuk - have gotten away scot-free."

The trial threatens to expose the relative ineffectiveness of the German judicial system, one that has taken six decades to get around to trying a relatively small fish such as Mr. Demjanjuk, while letting thousands of sharks swim free.

[W.Z. On the contrary! The trial threatens to expose the German "Nazi war criminal" brigade to be just as corrupt as the Office of Special Investigations in the United States.]

Germany's postwar judiciary was stocked with former Nazis who had little real interest in bringing former colleagues to justice. They made sure that crimes codified after the war - including genocide - not be retroactively applicable.

As a result, the bar for conviction in Germany is high. Nazi criminals are charged according to the criminal code: murder or accessory to murder, as is the case with Mr. Demjanjuk. To prove this, individual initiative has to be demonstrated, which is not easy in the case of someone such as Mr. Demjanjuk, who was just following orders, according to his lawyers. They don't categorically deny that he was a guard at Sobibor, but they do deny that he was there by choice.

[W.Z. Disinformation once again! John Demjanjuk has always categorically denied that he was ever in Sobibor.]

Mr. Demjanjuk is accused of serving as a Wachmann or guard, the lowest rank of the so-called Hilfswillige or Hiwi volunteers who were subordinate to German SS men. It is the first time a conviction has been sought against someone so low ranking without proof of a specific offence.

The prosecution argues that, even with no living witnesses who can implicate Mr. Demjanjuk in specific acts of brutality, just being a guard at a death camp means he was involved in murder. The 27,900 counts of accessory to murder come from the number of people transported to Sobibor and killed during the time Mr. Demjanjuk allegedly worked there.

Demjanjuk lawyer Ulrich Busch told the court that scores of others of higher rank have been acquitted of being part of the Nazis' machinery of destruction.

Karl Streibel, the commandant of the Trawniki training camp, was acquitted in 1976 after judges in Hamburg ruled there was insufficient proof he knew what the guards were being trained for.

Mr. Busch filed a motion seeking removal of the judges and prosecutors, saying the case should never have been brought to trial given the precedent.

"How can you say that the order-givers were innocent ... and the one who received the orders is guilty?" he asked. "There is a moral and legal double standard being applied today."

Prof. Wittmann speculated that German justice has homed in on Mr. Demjanjuk because of his sensational history.

"Germany's confrontation with its Nazi past doesn't happen in the courtroom," Prof. Wittmann said. "It happened in the '68 movement and it continues to happen in literature and film, among historians and in public discourse. Trials just serve to make Germans feel better, that something's being done."