Human Rights in Ukraine. Website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
09.02.2010 | Halya Coynash
Point of view

Moral Hollywood Remake: the Demjanjuk case and a new witness

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The Demjanjuk Case: Moral Hollywood


In September 2009 the article below “Moral Hollywood” was published in two languages – Ukrainian and English. The article is about the trial of Ivan Demjanjuk who is accused of having, as a guard at the concentration camp Sobibor, been complicit in the murder of 29 thousand Jews. Demjanjuk denies all the charges. In the article I mention that there are no living witnesses, but focus attention primarily on issues of a moral nature which the case raises even if we assume that Demjanjuk was in fact a guard at Sobibor.

Over the following months, due to the beginning of the trial on 30 November in Munich, the Demjanjuk case received considerable attention in the press. More and more often doubts were expressed both because of the lack of witnesses, and regarding the moral right to try a prisoner of war turned guard, when some half the trials of German SS officers accused of analogous crimes ended in acquittals.

Over the last few days, dramatic headlines such as “Ivan Grozny” [“Ivan the Terrible”] recognized by former death camp inmate” have appeared in the Russian media. We are informed that 87-year-old Alexei Weitzen, from Ryazan, says that he recognizes in Demjanjuk one of the death camp guards.

To my regret the reports in no way remove my profound doubts regarding this case which has been heralded as the “last trial of a Nazi”. I offer readers in Russian and English both my original text and a postscript explaining why this new turnaround in events fails to assuage any of the doubts expressed therein.

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 Nuremburg. 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 Nuremburg 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 Nuremburg 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.


So there really are happy endings?

On 5 February in a television feature on Vesti [Russian Television 1) it was announced that “Ivan Grozny” has been identified by a former death camp inmate”. Is this an innocent mistake given that it has been known since the 1980s that the vicious sadist from Treblinka nicknamed “Ivan Grozny” [“the Terrible”] was somebody else who is long dead? It is difficult to believe in an accidental muddling of different charges since there is a suspiciously large amount of inaccurate or incomplete information. We learn, for example, that this is the third trial of Ivan Demjanjuk. “He was first sentenced in Israel, but after seven years imprisonment he was released to the United States.” They forget one hardly irrelevant detail: Demjanjuk was not executed, and eventually “released to the United States” because it transpired that he was not Ivan Grozny. I could find no confirmation of any of the other details given in the television report on the Internet despite the wealth of information in different languages about the case.

It’s hard to know what to say, after all, the unimaginable has happened like in all Hollywood movies. Just as the German investigators were despairing, along comes a living witness, a person who by the photograph has recognized Ivan Demjanjuk. 87-year-old Alexei Weitzen, despite his own words and the television report, has not recognized Ivan the Terrible from Treblinka, but a guard at Sobibor where he himself was apparently a prisoner.

We learn that “Alexei Weitzen has been closely following the fate of Ivan Demjanjuk. He had previously not been in a hurry to testify against the guard. Many years, after all, had passed, and they had both changed a lot. Alexei Weitzen is 87, Ivan Demjanjuk will be 90 in April. Now the veteran from Ryazan no longer doubts that the defendant in Munich is that same “Ivan Grozny” from Sobibor”. “He was a polizei. He looks like Ivan Grozny – the mutt’s the same, the body, the hands. He should be flung out to be ripped to shreds”, the former concentration camp inmate is convinced.”

He was in no hurry for a very long time since in 1975 we are informed he “recognized guards from Sobibor”. Admittedly in a different Russian television report we learn that he positively always dreamed of justice being restored. I quote:

Alexei Weitzen: “I was always in favour of him being punished”

Journalist: “And how should he be punished, what punishment does he deserve?”

Alexei Weitzen: “He deserves the death penalty. Nothing else. For all the woes that he inflicted on people, it’s only the death penalty, I think”.

I would not argue with an elderly man, a former concentration camp prisoner. In fact, it would seem likely that he has little to do with this. However it is bitterly galling that to this day people are still simply used like so many film extras in others’ scenarios.

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The Demjanjuk Case: Moral Hollywood

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