Ivan Demjanjuk: is this not a man too?

Legal principles have been ditched in a bid to sustain the Holocaust as an ever-present moral imperative for today.

Angus Kennedy

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Last Thursday, after an 18-month trial in Munich, Ivan Demjanjuk was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Dutch Jews at the Sobibor Nazi death camp in Poland between March and September 1943. He was given a five-year prison sentence but has been released pending appeal. Demjanjuk is 91 years old and in ill health. He is stateless (having been stripped of his US citizenship in 2004 for lying about his war record) and broke.

This is not the first time that Demjanjuk has been found guilty of Nazi war crimes. Convicted in Israel in 1988 for having been the infamous prisoner/guard ‘Ivan the Terrible’ at Treblinka, another of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps in eastern Poland, he was sentenced to death but released five years later when new KGB evidence showed it to be a case of mistaken identity. The Israeli court acted with the utmost legal scruple: freeing him on grounds of reasonable doubt despite his having been identified as Ivan the Terrible by survivors.

Demjanjuk returned to the US where, almost immediately, new charges were levelled against him – this time of having been a guard at Sobibor and Majdanek camps – and, after losing his US citizenship, he was finally extradited to Germany in late 2009 to face trial there.

Demjanjuk is the lowest-ranking person to be tried in Germany for Nazi war crimes. A Ukrainian born in 1920, he had fought for the Red Army, was taken prisoner by the Germans in the Crimea and held in a Nazi camp. He then volunteered for the SS to escape it. The key piece of evidence against him was an ID card from the 1940s showing that he had been at the Trawniki SS forced labour camp where the SS trained Ukrainian volunteers as guards. He ended up in 1943 in Sobibor, an extermination camp where 250,000 Jews were gassed; the vast majority of them were killed immediately on arrival and maybe fewer than 100 people survived.

The Ukrainian volunteers, known as Hiwis, are well known to have behaved sadistically and undoubtedly murdered Jews themselves. As Demjanjuk’s judge, Ralph Alt, said: ‘Every Trawniki man knew that he was part of a well-oiled and smoothly operating apparatus that had no other goal than systematically murdering Jews… the accused was part of that extermination machinery… His participation in the killing process included the unloading of the wagons, forcing the prisoners to undress and accompanying them to the gas chambers.’

This alone, however, should not have been sufficient to convict Demjanjuk without detailed incontrovertible evidence of his having committed particular crimes. It is undeniable that many people were part of the machinery of extermination in the Holocaust. It’s also morally discomfiting to know that many of these participated with very different levels of willingness: some enthusiastically, some with the utmost reluctance.

Primo Levi, in the essay ‘The Grey Zone’, talks of the participation of the prisoners at Auschwitz: as members of the ‘privileged’; as kapos; as members of the Sonderkommando who worked the crematoria; even in the daily desperate struggle to survive. He describes how people, on entering the camps, desired, needed, to simplify everything into good and evil and what a profound, and often immediately fatal, shock it was for them to realise that ‘the network of human relationships inside the lagers was not simple: it could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors’. The first lesson of new arrivals was that there was no ‘we’, no solidarity of victims to protect them. As Filip Müller, a Czech Jew who worked in the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, puts it in his account, Eyewitness Auschwitz: ‘Auschwitz had its own laws and macabre values. At Auschwitz gold teeth might buy a bowl of turnip soup.’ It is difficult to judge those who survived in unambiguous moral terms.

This is not to say that Demjanjuk was a victim. It is to recognise that the morality of the camps was far from simple and that simply being there in a uniform should not be enough to convict him. To do so sets a number of disturbing legal precedents.

Commenting on one of these precedents, Nazi war crimes investigator Thomas Walter said that previously ‘it has been possible for perpetrators to plead that although they were at the scene of a crime, they… didn’t actually pull the trigger. But that’s not good enough any more. If you were in a camp in a German uniform you were an accomplice.’ To take such an approach, however, is to utterly simplify the situation. It is to say that, if you were there, you were guilty. It is to conflate being and doing, and remove the human element from the trial. It becomes irrelevant what Demjanjuk might have thought or did. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong uniform? Then you’re guilty. After all, the argument goes, if he were innocent he would have run away, even if that very likely meant he would die. It reminds me of nothing more than the medieval ducking of witches in rivers: only the guilty float.

Given that he was guilty by virtue of being, the absence of eyewitnesses to any specific crimes committed by Demjanjuk was not allowed to stand in the way of a good trial. One of the key prosecution witnesses was the remarkable Thomas Blatt, who was involved in the famous breakout from Sobibor. In his testimony to the Munich court he said: ‘I can’t say I remember Demjanjuk’s face, but frankly I can’t even recall that of my father after so many decades… But I can tell you that the Ukrainians were the worst, they were everywhere and they did everything.’

Blatt was unconcerned whether or not Demjanjuk was sentenced: ‘The trial is what matters to me. I want the truth. The world should find out how it was at Sobibor. He should confess, because he knows so much. He’s the last living perpetrator from Sobibor.’

It is not, however, the role of a law court to seek truth for the sake of it: ‘The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge’, as the Israeli Supreme Court put it on releasing Demjanjuk in 1993.

Demjanjuk’s trial is not unique – it is a common feature now of rape trials – in recognising the victim’s truth as more important than the defendant’s innocence and in aiming to redress, through a therapeutic show, the emotional pain of the victims. Or, in this case, the pain of the descendants of victims. A number of co-plaintiffs in the trial were second or third generation Holocaust ‘survivors’. Barbara DeJong, a psychologist from Utrecht who lost her grandparents in Sobibor said: ‘Attending this trial has helped me to face up to the terrible fate suffered by my grandparents. I found solace by being in touch with the families of other victims.’ As The Times (London) approvingly put it, ‘the interpretation of the law has suddenly shifted in favour of the victim, and not before time’.

What the trial lacks in legal niceties, like the presumption of innocence and the necessity of evidence to get a conviction, it makes up for, not just in its concern for the victim rather than the accused, but also in its willingness to ally itself to overtly political motivations.

This is the first time Germany has prosecuted a foreign national on German soil for crimes committed in Eastern Europe during the war. With a successful conviction achieved, 18 more preliminary investigations are underway. One of the effects of making Demjanjuk complicit in Nazi crimes is, of course, to rank his crime on par with those of the Germans. As Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority Yad Vashem, put it: ‘Demjanjuk’s conviction shows the Holocaust couldn’t have taken place without participation from Europeans on many levels who had criminal roles.’ The consequence is that the specificity of understanding the Holocaust as something organised by the Germans is watered down.

Over and above that political effect, the more overtly political motivation here is a desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive as a dire warning from history and as a moral imperative: it exists as an unquestioned and unquestionable moral absolute in a time when there are few others.

It was argued in the run-up to the trial that this was maybe the last chance to bring someone to trial for Nazi war crimes. The court took full advantage of this: rehearsing 18 months of the history of Sobibor; airing the feelings of the relatives of survivors; using the trial as a vehicle for moral and educational lessons especially aimed at a younger generation of Germans. Many commentators have approved this process on the grounds that many such crimes, like in Rwanda, continue to happen: the Holocaust is argued to have continued pressing ‘relevance’ for today.

The moral issue here is not Demjanjuk’s age and poor health. That should not be sufficient reason for not prosecuting him, but it is worth noting that his age is quite irrelevant when he is put on trial for crimes that are deemed ageless. As The Times put it: ‘Nor will the passing of witnesses serve to diminish such acts in the judgment of history.’ As if on cue, 97-year-old Sandor Kepiro has just appeared in court in Budapest for some 34 murders committed in 1942 in Serbia.

There actually seems no reason now that these non-trials, without witnesses or evidence, could not simply continue without defendants. The bare facts about deeds done now seem sufficient to establish guilt if the deeds can be shown to be evil. There is no tolerance shown to questions of motivation, no effort expended in trying to understand and interpret what happened. No extenuating circumstances could ever match up to the enormity of the Holocaust.

It was this very enormity of the event that led Primo Levi to recognise that it was not to be judged by the normal standards of human conduct. It is this same enormity that now leads a German court to deny any possible moral ambiguity on the part of those involved.

Maybe it was in recognition of his dispensability to this process that Demjanjuk stayed in silence throughout the proceedings, knowing that it did not matter what he said. The trial was not really about him, no one cared what he thought or would believe him in any case. It had already been established that every Trawniki man helped kill the Jews: anything Demjanjuk said in his defence would only have been evidence that he was in Sobibor; he could not say anything without incriminating himself.

This was a zero-tolerance trial, one that made a virtue out of its lack of judgement and its blindness to the specificity of Demjanjuk’s crimes or the reality of his circumstances at the time. The effect of the trial is to conflate cog with machine; to raise Demjanjuk to the level of Himmler and bring Himmler down to the level of Demjanjuk. The court was so concerned to showcase the horrors of Sobibor that it treated Demjanjuk as a means to that end, not as an end in himself; not as a man. He was in no real sense a defendant on trial. He was wheeled out every day as historical fact, as exhibit A.

This is the inevitable outcome of the transformation of the Holocaust into the contemporary symbol of absolute Evil. It is not only distasteful and shaming, it is dangerous in its removal of the human from the legal system. It is increasingly important that we forget the Holocaust and instead let it take its place in history. That is not to say we should forgive, which is a matter for individual conscience. But we should forget at least in the sense of not letting it be ever present in our minds – this is a much greater danger to us than any Holocaust denier. We must see the past as the past and not allow Sobibor to become the moral norm by which we judge the world.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

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