21.09.2009 | Halya Coynash

The Demjanjuk Case: Moral Hollywood


The impact of the information age is overestimated. Hollywood’s charm remains seductive and all-pervasive. We need feel-good pills, and heroes and villains to avoid problems with meaning. Heinous villains and noble heroes so as to not inadvertently muddle them, and to avoid uncomfortable questions about what we would do. Most importantly, if necessary, we can change channels.

When it comes to history, things are obviously more complicated. Happy-endings are not provided on call and there are no convenient rules that children are never killed on stage and the hero invariably wins. Nevertheless, both politicians and the media are adept at considering the audience’s demand.

They took some things into consideration this year when 89-year-old Ivan Demjanjuk was deported to Germany where he is accused of complicity in the murder of thousands of Jews in the Nazi concentration camp Sobibor. Objections because he’s an old man can – and should – be rejected since crimes against humanity cannot be subject to any time bar. It would not be politically correct either to express surprise or objections over Germany’s role in administering justice. On the contrary, it is surely to be welcomed.

It seems likely that possible confusion over the charges was also anticipated. Demjanjuk, after all, has already been tried, effectively on the basis of the same evidence, although on different charges. In 1988 he was sentenced to death in Israel, but 5 years later acquitted after it transpired that he was not the brutal guard at Treblinka, Ivan Grozny [Ivan the Terrible].  Consciously or not, there are different motives for blurring the difference. Those protesting Demjanjuk’s innocence stress that he has already been acquitted and believe that he is simply being persecuted. Or that it is an anti-Ukrainian campaign. German investigators speak somewhat vaguely of “new circumstances” and present new charges however they are unlikely to be too concerned that the media constantly mention the bloody sadist whom Demjanjuk was once wrongly alleged to be. It is, after all, vital that this case “doesn’t collapse”.

I am also convinced that war criminals should answer for their crimes, regardless of age, however this case elicits only a bitter sense of failure and in no way triumph of justice. There are effectively no new circumstances and the entire prosecution rests on an Ausweise, or pass, in Ivan Demjanjuk’s name at the SS “Travniki” training camp, a list of people brought to Sobibor, as well as the testimony of a Ukrainian guard at Sobibor Hnat Danylchenko.

All of that was known to the US authorities before the trial in Israel, then later when Demjanjuk first had his citizenship reinstated, and then again taken away because “the country has no intention of harbouring Nazi collaborators on its territory”. That sounds noble, however not overly convincing after the enforced disclosure in 2005 of archival material about the “CIA’s secret documentary history of the U.S government’s relationship with General Reinhard Gehlen, the German army’s intelligence chief for the Eastern Front during World War II”. Other documents published “show that at least five associates of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann worked for the CIA, 23 other Nazis were approached by the CIA for recruitment, and at least 100 officers within the Gehlen organization were former SD or Gestapo officers”.

In his recent book “Hunting evil”, Guy Walters asserts that despite the popular myth, most Nazis were not hunted down at all. He cites the example of Friedrich Buchardt who as the head of an Einsatzgruppe took direct part in the killing of tens of thousands of Jews. After the War, we learn, he continued his career, working for Britain’s MI6.

Unlike these and many other cases where the Allies could not have failed to know who they were dealing with, here it is known that Demjanjuk was taken prisoner in 1942, but there are no living witnesses who can refute, or confirm, his assertion that from 1942 to 1944 he was in a prisoner of war camp in Chelm, and not at the Travniki Camp and in Sobibor.

However we are offered one more argument:

“All of Demjanjuk’s accusers, whether in the USA, in Israel, or now here in Germany, maintain that no one could have endured the inhuman conditions in Chelm”

The fact that he survived is thus proof against him.

The conditions for Soviet prisoners of war were indeed inhuman and the mortality rate among them very high. I do not know whether Demjanjuk was a guard in Sobibor, but unlike “all his accusers” can only hope that in a prisoner of war’s place, I would have refused the chance to save my life. Judging from their certainty, I would hazard a guess that they have not read the words of Varlam Shalamov, who spent more than 20 years in Soviet labour camps: “The camps were a great test of a man’s moral strength, of ordinary human morality, and ninety nine percent of people failed this test”.

And Demjanjuk is not accused of moral failure, but of a crime against humanity, of complicity in the murder of 29 thousand Jews. He will stand not before God, but before human beings who apparently know how Soviet prisoners of war lived – and died, and do not for a second doubt that they themselves would have passed that moral test with flying colours.

All the media tell us that the trial of Demjanjuk will probably be the last trial of “Nazis”, and that it will be the final stage of the process begun at Nuremberg.  A leitmotiv of virtually all articles of this topic has long been the number of “Hitler’s helpers” in other countries. We read, for example,

 «Experts such as Dieter Pohl of the German Institute for Contemporary History estimate that more than 200,000 non-Germans -- about as many as Germans and Austrians -- "prepared, carried out and assisted in acts of murder." The authors of this article even raise the disturbing question “was the so-called Final Solution in fact a "European project that cannot be explained solely by the special circumstances of German history"?”

 At the Nuremberg Tribunal the initiators of a heinous crime against humanity were tried, together with people who were consciously and voluntarily complicit in that crime. Another – non-judicial – process was at the same time underway with the Allies, including the USSR, deciding who could be of service to them in conditions of a new “cold” war. This was very often determined by political considerations and not the need for de-Nazification and repentance. We are now seeing a new generation of researchers and journalists for whom, distanced in time and conditions, all seems simple. They draw bold conclusions about the guilt of this or that group of people, claiming that they could have done more to save Jews. Or, with the help of arithmetic, they brush away complexity and blur fundamental moral concepts.  Two hundred thousand Germans, two hundred thousand non-Germans, yet no mention of whether these were volunteers, active participants, or those facing a choice between life and death.

Workers at the German factories producing Zyklon B for the gas chambers could hardly have been totally oblivious as to why it was being produced in such quantities.  Do German intellectuals, including Martin Heidegger, who helped the Nazis first remove Jews from their posts, really not bear responsibility for the “Final Solution”?  They bear some, as, incidentally, do the intellectuals from other countries who tried not to see or “broadcast” the crimes against humanity of Stalin’s regime.

It is difficult to believe that the French who sent 75 thousand French Jews “east” did not know deep down that they were sentencing them to death, that is, that they were implicated in mass murder. They did so voluntarily whereas in neighbouring fascist Italy soldiers quite simply refused to carry out orders to hand Italian Jews over to the Nazis.

There is nothing new here and all the information needed can be found in any library or on the Internet. If the will is there, you can also find out how the conditions differed for British and Soviet soldiers in Nazi prisoner of war camps, or what people in Poland or Ukraine risked when providing refuge for Jewish people.

Or you can choose the simpler, undemanding role of viewers, observing how the heroes have finally caught the villain and justice has been restored. All easy and painless.

It is not everything that is understood in comparison, and one person’s guilt is not diminished because others also sinned. It was once justified to try to find “Ivan Grozny”, bring a brutal sadist to justice. They convicted the wrong man who was not executed only thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discovery of material demonstrating that a miscarriage of justice had taken place. At the present time we are dealing, at most, with an anonymous functionary who was in that way saving his life.

Obviously prisoners of war faced a moral choice, as did the prisoners of Soviet labour camps, as did Heidegger when he personally facilitated the dismissal of Jewish colleagues, as well as workers of German factories which make the death machine possible. Some were governed by career considerations or political expediency, while others feared losing their job or simply wanted to survive. There were also those who consciously and voluntarily carried out a terrible evil. They also made their moral choice, as did those who for their own purposes helped them to escape justice.

Instead of the culmination of the Nuremberg process and the triumphant renewal of justice, we again have a show trial which elicits a worried feeling that the organizers want an easy symbol and myth, while both they and the public as a whole show a stubborn reluctance to learn any real lessons.

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