Alex Chesbro's Blog

Touchy Subjects | May 11, 2009

I read some unsettling news on Yahoo! today.  John Demjanjuk, the suspected Nazi guard at the Sobibor camp, could possibly be deported by Tuesday.  I think this is the wrong decision.  I will explain later, but now, let me clarify things. The Holocaust was a terrible time in history.  World War II defined the 20th centuries and the atrocities that could happen, lest people stop them.  I believe that the Nurnburg Trials were shoddy, almost a Kangaroo Court, but the outcome was the correct outcome.  Genocide is not something good, obviously, and in no way do I support any Nazi ideals, racism, or anything of that sort. 

That said, Demjanjuk got a raw deal.  Why?  The man is 89 years old. 

This may run long, but I’ll try to summarize as much as possible.  Demjanjuk arrived in the USA in 1952 and was granted citizenship 1958.  Then in 1977 evidence surfaced that he had been a guard at Sobibor and various other Nazi Death Camps.  He was identified by various Jewish survivors in group photos and such.  This alone should not have been hard evidence, but it was treated as such.  So in 1983 Israel issued an extradition request to put Demjanjuk on trial.  They had compiled legitimate evidence that he had served as a guard at Sobibor and Treblinka, where he was called “Ivan the Terrible.”  The prosecution provided written evidence of who he was and that he had, in fact, been a guard.

In 1988, Demjanjuk was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death.  This verdict was obviously appealed and sent to the Supreme Court of Israel.  The Supreme Court overturned all guilty charges.  That ruling was an astounding 405 pages.  Quoting the ruling:   The main issue of the indictment sheet filed against the appellant was his identification as Ivan the Terrible, an operator of the gas chambers in the extermination camp at Treblinka … By virtue of this gnawing [new evidence indicating mistaken identity] … we restrained ourselves from convicting the appellant of the horrors of Treblinka. Ivan Demjanjuk has been acquitted by us, because of doubt, of the terrible charges attributed to Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and mind, but have only what their eyes see and read.”

So, a strong possibility that he wasn’t Ivan the Terrible.  Personally, I doubt that he was.  I think he was a collaborator, not a driving force.  

So, getting to the grindstone.  Whether or not this man was a guard is clear: he was.  Ok..that’s not a crime in itself, as there were many SS guards at Nazi camps, and many of them were never brought to trial.  Whether or not this man was Ivan the Terrible is still up for debate.  Whether or not this man is guilty of war crimes, however, should not be.  He was basically found NOT GUILTY by….Israel.  Since this was before the time of the ICC, they should have had the last say in the matter, as it was their people/race who were the focus of the genocide against them.

But now, with Demjanjuk pushing 90 years of age, Germany wants to put him on trial.  How this isn’t double-jeopardy is beyond me.  Besides the fact that it’s a separate country, you’d think international lawyers would just try to show an 89 year old man some respect in his last years of his life.  He’s more or less confined to a wheelchair and in constant pain.  What could there possibly be to gain from getting a guilty verdict against an old man.  There have to be some other criminals for them to go after, if you can even consider Demjanjuk a criminal, which I don’t.

I believe his case can be likened to that of Adolf Eichmann’s.  If you’ll remember, Eichmann was tried under the assumption that he was the “architect of the Holocaust.”  Wrong.  Eichmann was a bean counter, and he was only invited to the Wansee Conference to be a recorder of minutes.  At that meeting, Eichmann was given the job of “Transportation Administrator” of the Final Solution.  He was in charge of the trains.  

The psychology of Eichmann is far too deep to go into here, but he was a hard worker who joined the Nazi Party in order to build a career, and he was, in every sense of the word, a loyal person.  He was just loyal to the wrong side.  His final words were, “I had to obey the rules of war and my flag.”  And that’s possibly the greatest thing we can take away from his situation.  Hannah Arendt said he showed no trace of an antisemitic personality or of any psychological damage to his character. She called him the embodiment of the “Banality of Evil“, as he appeared at his trial to have an ordinary and common personality, displaying neither guilt nor hatred.  Stanley Milgram later said that if put in the right situation, even normal people will do terrible things.

2 normal people allegedly did horrible things.  We’ll never know because of the shadings of revisionist history.  

Back to Demjanjuk.  He was acquitted by the People who he was allegedly set out to eliminate.  Not guilty.  If he truly participated in running the ovens, instead of being just a guard, he’s had to live with that his whole life.  That in itself is punishment enough for this 89 year old man.  Nothing will be gained from trying him, or sentencing him to death this late in the game.  

In writing this, I lost my train of thought and forgot the conclusion I was going to write.  So I’ll let you draw your own, and maybe I’ll remember mine and edit it in here.  This could have been a lot longer, but hopefully the links help educate whoever reads this into exploring different alternatives to “everyone who did anything in Nazi Germany was an evil person.”  Because that’s just not the case.  

Thanks to whoever slogs through this.

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2 Comments »

  1. hey alex. i think this guy or anyone who was involved and therefore responsible in torturing and killing people should go on a trial.

    in case of (former) nazis, some of them seem to think that it was okay what they had done. i think it was absolutely not. and i don’t see any justification (flag, honour, politics etc.) for cruelty under any given circumstances.

    maybe demjanjuk is old and ill. but he could live his life. have a family and all that.
    his victims could not. they lived the last time of their lives in utter fear until they were killed. if they were lucky enough to survive, they had to deal with the memories. and i don’t think this is an easy thing to do.

    infact, it is a shame that those monsters were not convicted earlier. because that would have meant they would have had to face their deeds from a different perspective.

    i personally am no supporter of the death penalty. and there is no such thing as a death penalty in germany. thank [please insert appropriate here: god etc.]

    so the only thing any nazi could face now is their end of life in prison. with no fear of being tortured and killed, proper food, entertainment and medical treatment.

    but nazis are not the only problem. there are so many war criminals that are not sent to trial. if you only think about war crimes during the war in ex yugoslavia, let alone africa. this is absolutely horrible. it is a threat to humanity.

    Comment by pseudo — May 11, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  2. And I completely agree. Nazis…ranking ones, at least, should have been (or were) tried and either spent their lives in prison, or sentenced to death. No qualms on my part there. However, Damjanjuk was acquitted of his crimes…in Israel.

    But how about this….little off topic, but still relevant to the whole Nazi Germany times…

    Johann lives next door to some Jewish people (we’re now in 1941). Knowing that it’s better to go along with the flow to preserve life, he doesn’t say anything when Nazis take away his neighbors. However, he never pointed them out, and he never spoke out against their deportation. Is Johann a Nazi? Or merely a collaborator? Or neither?

    I don’t really know what I feel about this whole case. On one hand, if Demjanjuk really was manning the ovens at a death camp, then yes, even though he’s already been acquitted, he deserves his punishment. But, since he’s 89 friggin’ years old, has been acquitted, and there is conflicting evidence…do we we really need to deport him? Nah.

    The Holocaust, while unspeakably terrible, ended 64 years ago. We need to move on. What’s going to happen in the next 5 years? Are we going to search for all the people in their 90s who did nothing while Germany was under Nazi control? “Never Forget” is a fitting slogan, but, living in Germany, I feel that “Move on” should be adopted as well.

    My mother says it best. “Never forget, but always look forward.” I think that sums it up well.

    Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting too. Good to see a well thought out response.

    Comment by Alex — May 11, 2009 @ 9:46 pm


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