When the trial of John Demjanjuk for being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibór extermination camp began in Munich on Nov. 30, 2009, the question of whether prosecutors would not be required to demonstrate the defendant's personal guilt to secure a conviction against him, as is usually the case, was joined by a number of other doubts as to the legitimacy of the case itself.
Can a formerly insignificant guard like Demjanjuk, who occupied a position at the lowest level of the Nazis' murderous hierarchy and whom the prosecution could not charge with a single concrete crime, be tried at all? A man who, as a prisoner-of-war of the Germans in 1942, could only choose between two evils: either starve to death, freeze to death or be consumed by typhus, like millions of other captured Red Army soldiers, or work for the enemy?
Can a fragile old man be hauled before a court more than 65 years later when, as the defense argues, so many Germans who conceived, organized and carried out the Holocaust in an unbelievably gruesome manner, got off lightly or even scot-free?
And even if the court were to issue a guilty verdict, who benefits from punishment today? Should it serve as a deterrent? Is the intention to rehabilitate an old man?
And is there even an adequate punishment for tens of thousands of counts of murder? The German Criminal Code defines a murderer as someone who kills a person for specific reason -- but not thousands upon thousands of people. Isn't it true that our criminal law is suitable for ordinary crimes but not for the systematic extermination of millions of people?
Dozing in Court
Ivan Mykolayevych Demjanjuk is now 91. He suffers from chronically low hemoglobin levels, and something as minor as a cold can be life-threatening for him. But he is not the half-dead figure he has appeared to be during the trial, which has lasted almost a year and a half, with some 90 days in court. He would be rolled into the courtroom and placed onto a hospital bed, where he would doze away, his eyes hidden behind a pair of black sunglasses. It was an image that eventually prompted onlookers to overlook his presence, with only the murmuring of the translator serving as a reminder that there was a man on the fringes of the trial who, as the defendant, ought to have been at its center.
It was not the ceiling lights that hurt his eyes, as he claimed, because they were switched off for his sake. It was apparently the sight of the men and women whose parents, sisters and brothers had been beaten and forced into the gas chambers by the "Trawnikis," as the mainly Ukrainian helpers in Sobibór were known. He refused to look at them.
In fact, these joint plaintiffs attracted much of the attention, as a result of their gratitude that this trial was finally focusing the public's awareness on the Sobibór camp. Very few of them wanted revenge and retribution. Many supported the prosecution's motion to impose a six-year prison sentence. For them, it was more important that memories would not fade away, and that no one would ever again refer to Sobibór as the "forgotten" extermination camp. [W.Z. Ms. Friedrichsen first demonizes Mr. Demjanjuk, then she describes his persecutors in humanitarian terms.]
Fight for Survival
Demjanjuk was born on April 3, 1920 in a village in Ukraine, where he was supposedly forced to eat rats and food scraps during the famine under Stalin. As a young man, he was sent to the front and was eventually captured by the Germans. Again, sheer survival was his biggest concern. Because the Germans valued Ukrainians as being "useful," unlike other prisoners-of-war, the choice was easy. [W.Z. Once again, Ms. Friedrichsen is fantasizing -- It was mostly Ukrainians who were initially captured by the Germans and starved to death in open-air pits at the beginning of the war.]
Another argument against the legitimacy of the trial is the question of whether the defendant hadn't already atoned enough for his alleged crimes. He had been imprisoned in Israel for seven-and-a-half years, including five years on death row, after being tried and found guilty as "Ivan the Terrible," a notorious guard at the Treblinka concentration camp. He also spent 10 months in detention while awaiting extradition from the United States, and he has been in custody in Germany since May 12, 2009. All told, he has already been behind bars for 10 years.
It turned out that Demjanjuk was not actually Ivan the Terrible, the butcher of Treblinka who cut off women's breasts and men's ears. His bitterness partly stems from the fact that the Americans, apparently knowing that he was not Ivan the Terrible, nevertheless extradited him to Israel, where he could expect to receive the death penalty.
But even if he wasn't Ivan the Terrible, the label has stuck to him to this day, because it singles him out from the hordes of Trawnikis and puts a face on their atrocities.
Now, after a trial in Munich that has lasted one-and-a-half years, the questions of its legitimacy have been answered. Defense attorney Ulrich Busch is the only person who does not tire of continuing to contest these issues. No one is arguing that it was not reasonable for Demjanjuk to try to save his life by allowing himself to be recruited by the SS. But when it became clear to him that his work for the SS consisted of having people murdered, he should no longer have taken part. That, at least, is the view held by the prosecution and the joint plaintiffs.
Part 2: Behaving Like an Obstinate Old Man
Of course, it may sound trite for a young prosecutor like Hans-Joachim Lutz to reproach the defendant for not fleeing the camp, as other Trawnikis did. Lutz argues that Demjanjuk had the opportunity to leave the camp. One of the outcomes of this trial is that we now know that by no means every fugitive captured by the Nazis could expect to be killed. [W.Z. ??? On the contrary!]
How dire was his predicament? Did he consciously choose injustice? No one knows the answer to these questions. With the exception of three statements read by Busch, in which Demjanjuk bemoaned his fate under Stalin, in Nazi Germany and in Israel, he remained silent. Instead of describing his own hardships, he behaved like an obstinate old man and refused to participate in the trial in any reasonable way. He did not seek to explain anything, nor did he beg for sympathy, acknowledge any guilt or express remorse.
In his closing remarks, Cornelius Nestler, a law professor from Cologne who is representing relatives of Sobibór victims who have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, succinctly concluded: "In times of war, the option of not being exposed to any danger does not exist. In 1943, almost every young man in Europe could be and had to be a soldier, at a high risk to his own life. In this historic situation, could someone have been expected to take the risk of joining the partisans until the Red Army arrives, or fending for himself at home?" The answer is self-evident.
Why did Demjanjuk stay in Sobibór for half a year? We don't know. But given the large number of documents, including identification cards, transport and transfer lists, equipment lists, official correspondence and the like that were presented to the court in Munich and examined by experts, it is reasonable to assume that he was in fact there and worked as a guard -- thereby helping to maintain the murder machine.
One doesn't need to like defense attorney Busch as a person. One can criticize him for his constant use of abstruse, refuted or unproven arguments. Or for his fruitless motions for rejection, for stay of proceedings or for relief, and his haphazard applications to produce evidence, which numbered in the hundreds and only wasted time. Or for his uncontrolled outbursts against the presiding judge Ralph Alt, which truly made his job difficult, as well as against the joint plaintiffs and even against the families of the victims. But given the plethora of documents that attest to the detailed record-keeping of the extermination machinery and his client's proximity to that machinery, Busch defended Demjanjuk with his back to the wall. He knew that it was a hopeless cause, but he fought nevertheless. He should not have to apologize for this.
Was it a bogus trial? A global conspiracy targeted precisely at Demjanjuk? Many of Busch's theories, which he submitted week after week, defied logic. Why, for example, should conspirators have forged Demjanjuk's ID cards in 1948, when no one knew anything about Demjanjuk? And what about the many thousands of pages of Nazi war documents on Soviet soldiers who were later accused of collaboration? Is it really plausible that they were concocted by Soviet intelligence?
In his summation, Nestler said: "The defendant saw them, the people from the Netherlands who, believing what they had been told by the SS about work camps in the East, got off the trains from Westerbork (eds note: a camp in the Netherlands), their faces full of hope, the children expecting to see new things and the skeptical ones with fear in their eyes. The defendant saw them, the people from the Polish ghettoes who, after years of SS control, sensed or already knew what was in store for them, and who had to be driven to their deaths with brutal force, unless they were already half-dead on arrival and were tossed onto the wagons from the ramp. The defendant saw them, the half-naked, helpless people being hurried along on the way to the gas chamber, and he heard their desperate cries." [W.Z. This is all fantasy!]
The culpability for such acts does not end after a few years. In Nestler's words, "the criminal justice system and we, as a society, do not have the right to say, once again, that we no longer want to look at these things, corresponding to the widespread mood within the society and judiciary of our country in the 1950s and 1960s."
'A Dictate of Justice'
As Nestler argued, the proceedings against Demjanjuk are more than a desire to achieve justice for those who suffered and still suffer as a result of his actions. "The proceedings are also a dictate of justice for a society that guarantees its fundamental values by ensuring that in cases of crimes against humanity, culpability is not something that diminishes over time."
But one question remained unanswered until the end: Why now? Why does it occur to the German judiciary, more than half a century after the murder of millions of Jews, to bring those individuals to justice who were "merely" responsible for the operation of the killing factories?
It was Thomas Walther, a circuit judge who, while working for the Ludwigsburg-based Central Office of the Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes after his retirement from the court, happened upon a court decision on the Internet that indicated that Demjanjuk had been a guard at Sobibór. It was thanks to Walther, something of a maverick, that the established Ludwigsburg practice of only prosecuting people whose concrete crimes could be demonstrated came to an end. Sobibór was an extermination camp, not a labor or transit camp. Consequently, anyone who worked there was at least an accessory to murder.
Again, it was Nestler who analyzed the history of the criminal prosecution of Nazi crimes in Germany before the Munich court. The history involves cases like that of Erich Bauer, the "gas master" of Sobibór, who, after survivors had recognized him on the street in Berlin, was sentenced to death under Allied law in 1950 for "crimes against humanity," a sentence that was later converted to life in prison. In the same year, Hubert Gomerski, an SS officer who had been stationed at Sobibór, was also given a life sentence in Frankfurt.
"The German judiciary has been familiar with the crime since then. And it is familiar with the witnesses, the survivors. They can also provide the names of other SS men. Nevertheless, no further investigations are taking place," Nestler said, describing the situation in those days. In 1966, a district court in Hagen in western Germany convicted six defendants from Sobibór, but then acquitted five of them. "The court believed the men who were acquitted when they said that they had done everything within their power to escape from Sobibór, and that they had believed that they would be risking their lives by refusing to obey an order," Nestler continued. Any defendant who could portray his plight in a believable manner was allowed to claim a so-called putative crisis. At the time, no one was looking for Ukrainian Trawnikis, who had been recruited to exterminate the Jews but whose names and whereabouts were not known. [W.Z. Pure hate mongering against Ukrainians!]
As court decisions from the 1960s and 70s show, people like the Trawnikis were seen as the "last links in the chain within the murderous machinery" (Hamburg, 1976), who were "generally not to be charged" (Bielefeld, 1959). There was a consensus that "ordinary people" who had been forced to take on military roles were entrapped by the "unjust system" of the time (Stuttgart, 1973).
Looking the Other Way
Why did the courts look the other way for so long? Some referred to the Demjanjuk indictment as a "legal novelty." Is it really about an unconstitutional "exclusive law created for one individual," as the defense claimed? In Nestler's view, this theory is "completely wrong." To support his argument, he again cited the 1966 verdict by the Hagen District Court, saying: "There was no proof that any of these defendants killed Jews single-handedly or, on their own initiative, ensured that Jews were killed. However, in places where they were involved in the camp organization, they all directly facilitated the mass murder of the Jews through their functional participation." This is precisely the charge being leveled against Demjanjuk 40 years later.
Criminal laws and their interpretation are not set in stone. They change, conforming to the zeitgeist and political demands [of the ruling Zionists?]. In 1966, the court in Hagen answered the question of who is a perpetrator, by pointing to political responsibility: "The principal perpetrators of the Holocaust were primarily Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Heydrich…" Even those who committed murder single-handedly could now be downgraded to accessory status and thus avoid life in prison. In this hierarchy of murder, there was hardly any room left for the guards. [W.Z. Heydrich was assassinated by British intelligence in May 1942.]
According to Nestler, this led to the investigations being concentrated on excessive crimes and to the "myth, which prevailed in Ludwigsburg for decades, that proof of a direct act of killing is required in every historic situation in order to launch investigations into being an accessory to murder." This is no longer the case. [W.Z. Let us hope that this precedent applies to Palestine and the treatment of Palestinians.]
One of the most moving moments in Munich was when Jules Schelvis, an elderly Sobibór survivor who is one of the joint plaintiffs, was called to testify. He had been raised to have humanity, he said. All he wanted was a guilty verdict. Whether the defendant was punished or not was irrelevant to him. [W.Z. But Jules Schelvis testified that he saw no Ukrainians in Sobibor. Mr. Schelvis testified that he was sent on a work detail to dig peat moss -- which is exactly what John Demjanjuk testified that the Germans forced him to do. The testimony of Jules Schelvis indicates that Sobibor was a transit camp from where the detainees were sent to various labor camps.]
The verdict is expected before the end of May, 2011.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
[W.Z. For the duration of the Demjanjuk Munich trial, Der Spiegel has been at the forefront in promoting the views of the Holocaust Industry to the detriment of Mr. Demjanjuk, the German people and all of humanity. They have never published any material supporting Mr. Demjanjuk. This is censorship at its worst. There is no self-respect left in Germany.]