New York Times | 16May2011 | Deborah E. Lipstadt
Demjanjuk in Munich
LAST week a German court in Munich found John
Demjanjuk guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, one
for each of the Jews exterminated during the six months that he worked
as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. The Demjanjuk trial
will probably be the last Holocaust war crimes trial to grab the
For many, especially those in younger generations, the trial
against Mr. Demjanjuk, a 91-year-old former Ohio autoworker now
confined to a wheelchair, may seem the awkward fulfillment of the
notion that history plays itself out first as tragedy, then as farce.
Coincidentally, this year is the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf
Eichmann, a case that, in its significance, appears to dwarf
the Demjanjuk proceedings.
But while Eichmann did play a larger role in the Holocaust
than Mr. Demjanjuk, we must resist the conclusion that one is more
significant than the other. Indeed, the Demjanjuk trial, as much as the
Eichmann case, has volumes to teach us about the complex relationship
between genocide and justice.
The Demjanjuk case matters, above all, because there was never
much doubt that he had been a vicious prison guard under the Nazis.
After living for more than 30 years in the United States, he was
deported to Israel in 1986, where he was tried and sentenced to death.
Unfortunately, prosecutors had misidentified him as a guard at the
Treblinka camp known as Ivan the Terrible, and Mr. Demjanjuk was
released in 1993.
What followed was 16 years of legal wrangling as Mr.
Demjanjuk, now back in the United States, fought efforts to retry or
deport him. Finally, Germany succeeded in extraditing him in 2009. Last
week’s decision, then, was proof that the rule of law works, however
Of course, it’s that slow pace that had many asking why
Germany was bothering to try Mr. Demjanjuk in the first place. Wasn’t
there something comic, even shameful, about dragging a dying man across
the Atlantic to stand trial for a crime he committed over a half
century ago? Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on even the
most heinous crimes?
No, and the trial reaffirms that society rejects that idea.
Those who participate in genocide, in whatever capacity, should never
rest easy. Nor should they assume that if they delay justice enough,
their case will be abandoned. This lesson may matter more today than
ever: after all, the hunt for Holocaust killers may be over, but the
hunt for those who practiced genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda
and far too many other places must continue.
The Demjanjuk trial also underlines the lessons learned from
Eichmann. Like Mr. Demjanjuk, Eichmann claimed he was only a small cog
in the wheel. Both men argued that they did not have the choice to say
no; it was kill or be killed.
However, as Hannah Arendt argued in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,”
every machine part is of crucial importance. Removing a small cog has
the same impact as removing a large one: the machine stops working.
Both men could have said no with few consequences; no defense lawyer or
historian has found evidence of someone being killed for refusing to
participate in the Holocaust. But these men chose not to refuse.
True, the outcomes for the two men will be different: Eichmann
was the only person in Israel’s history to be executed; Mr. Demjanjuk
will probably die in his bed as his lawyers appeal his sentence.
But what happened at both of these trials is more important
than the ultimate fates of the guilty. Now as then, the victims were
given a chance to tell their story, not in a book, interview or speech,
but in a court of law. At the Eichmann trial close to 100 witnesses
testified about their suffering. At the Demjanjuk trial we heard from
the victims’ children. They joined the prosecutor in pointing their
fingers at the man who facilitated their parents’ murders. In other
words, the Demjanjuk trial proves that while Eichmann himself may be
history, the robust process that made Holocaust trials into something
more than mere court proceedings is still effective.
And finally, the Demjanjuk case, by its very complexity, is a
fitting coda to the Eichmann trial because it reminds us that
adjudicating genocide is, like the act itself, rarely straightforward.
These cases raise difficult questions about how to punish different
types of participation in a genocide; does a guard who carried it out
deserve more or less punishment than a bureaucrat who planned it?
These trials do not ever truly offer closure, even decades
after the crime. Indeed, cases like Mr. Demjanjuk’s are in some sense
only the beginning of a process of reckoning and understanding, a
process whose burden now falls not on the courts, but on the rest of
Deborah E. Lipstadt is a
professor of modern Jewish and
Holocaust studies at Emory University and the author of “The Eichmann
Date: Sun, May 22, 2011 at 5:42 AM
Subject: RE: commentary on the Demjanjuk trial
Cc: A. S.
If ever there was a poster girl for double standards, I believe we have
found her in Deborah Lipstadt.
A paragon of objectivity she is not in her commentary on the Demjanjuk
the names and places and rearrange the facts so that they hit closer to
home (but without altering the essential legal and moral issues) and (I
suspect) she would be the first to scream...well, you know what.
matter-of-factly equates Demjanjuk's "significance" to that of Eichmann
(the lowest of the low and the highest of the high on the scale of
accountability) and without a shred of evidence glibly asserts that
"there was never much
doubt that he had been a vicious
under the Nazis."
(emphasis added). With that kind of certainty, who
needs evidence or a real (as opposed to show) trial to elicit, test and
then confirm it?
It apparently matters not a whit to Lipstadt
that the sole evidence against Demjanjuk was Soviet in origin,
consisting of the untested, uncross-examined testimony of a long since
departed Soviet citizen claiming (in circumstances unknown) to have
been a camp guard at Sobibor and of knowing a guard there of the same
name as Demjanjuk; and a Trawniki ID card which, if authentic, would,
at most, have established that Demjanjuk trained as a concentration
camp guard at Trawniki. We know that the same ID card was relied upon
heavily in the lower courts in Israel to convict Demjanjuk of being
Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. Until, that is, it was established in
the Supreme Court of Israel that Demjanjuk was not, in fact, ever at
Treblinka and, thus, was not and could not have been the mass murderer
the Israelis were seeking. The fact that very early on (in 1985 to be
precise) the FBI itself cast doubt on the authenticity of the
KGB-produced Trawniki ID card was not even considered worthy of mention
by Lipstadt. For heaven's sake, besides these two flimsiest of
documentary foundations, neither of which should ever have been
admitted into, much less given any weight in, a court of law, neither
the Germans nor the Israelis could provide a scintilla of evidence of
their own to support the conjecture that Demjanjuk was at any time a
guard at Sobibor.
Yet, reading Lipstadt, one could be
forgiven for believing that -- contrary to what the entire world knows
-- the KGB never lies (unless, of course, the incriminating information
is directed at....well, you know who).
Moreover, the ease with
which she accepts, even defends, the legal hypothesis of guilt by
(purported) association (evidently for all, including interned
prisoners of war), is breath-taking. According to the KGB, Demjanjuk
was at Sobibor, ergo,
he was complicit in the murder of every single
individual who perished in that camp while he was there. What? Surely
that test includes kapos of every ethnicity. And what of every single
person of higher authority at the camp, that being literally everyone
in the command structure? Lipstadt does not even mention their
What she does say is quite astonishing: "no
defense lawyer or historian has found evidence of someone being killed
for refusing to participate in the Holocaust". In other
Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor, all he had to do to save himself from
moral culpability upon discovering what his chores entailed was to
submit his resignation to the appropriate authorities, at no risk to
life or limb.
Well, mirabile dictu!
Who would have thought!
Is one then to presume that the millions of Soviet POWs the Germans
murdered outright or simply starved to death, including those that
declined the opportunity to train for and then serve as concentration
camp guards, were a figment of our collective imagination? That it
never happened? That the captured Soviets facing certain death who were
then offered the chance to serve as camp guards seized the opportunity
knowing that they could always back-out later without significant
penalty? Or, to take another pretty obvious example, one would have
thought that the act of hiding Jews from the Nazis would constitute
"refusing to participate
in the Holocaust". I guess not, since,
according to Lipstadt, no one in all of Europe who hid Jews from the
Nazis was ever killed for it when found out. Not a single person.
The things you learn from Op Ed pieces in the NY Times written by
Professors of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies!
Here's what I learned:
is Ukrainian. A KGB-produced Trawniki identity card purportedly links
Demjanjuk to a WWII SS concentration guard training facility in Poland.
KGB-supplied testimony of a long since deceased individual -- who may
or may not have ever existed and -- who allegedly testified/confessed
to being a guard at Sobibor, places a man named Ivan Demjanjuk at
Sobibor in the capacity of a camp guard at the same time. From this a
German court concluded, and Lipstadt -- without hesitation, moral
qualms or equivocation -- agrees, that Demjanjuk was obviously,
self-evidently and without question an accessory to mass murder and
Indeed, Lipstadt, in her own words, never
Here's what else I learned:
Lipstadt's views, and the
moral asymmetries underpinning them, are beyond contempt.