CBC News | 22Dec2009 | Jennifer Clibbon

A front row seat at Demjanjuk's Nazi war crimes trial
Interview with Rebecca Wittmann

Both a strong sense of history and urgency hang over the long-awaited trial of John Demjanjuk, the 89-year-old former prison guard accused of helping to murder 27,900 Jews at a Nazi death camp called Sobibor.

The retired auto worker from Ohio is in poor health and his trial was postponed after only two days of proceedings, which started Nov. 30, 2009.

The first day of the trial in Munich drew hundreds of people; journalists, historians, and relatives of victims, all anxious to witness one of the last Nazi war crimes trials.

Demjanjuk's family long fought extradition from the United States on the grounds that he is too old and the charges too flimsy for trial. Others point out the irony that Germany is prosecuting not a German Nazi, but a Ukrainian guard who was [allegedly] recruited to work for the Germans.

Canadian historian Rebecca Wittmann is observing this fascinating trial. Based at the University of Toronto, but living this year in Germany, she is a specialist on Nazi war crimes trials.

She has explored what she and others view as Germany's flawed legal process dealing with former Nazis, which led to many getting off with remarkably light sentences. From this perspective, she recognizes the historical importance of Demjanjuk's trial, but also the background of a failed reckoning on the part of Germany's postwar legal system.

[W.Z. Does Ms. Wittmann recognize the criminality of the OSI who were guilty of prosecutorial misconduct constituting fraud on the court in the 1981 denaturalization and the 1986 extradition of John Demjanjuk to Israel?]

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed Wittmann recently. Here are some excerpts from their conversation.

CBC: What can we expect from the trial in late December and January?

Wittmann: You can expect it to drag, and drag and drag. He is basically only capable of sitting 90 minutes a day and there are often only three court days a week. They have May court dates, but I think it will go on for much longer.

CBC: There are many relatives of victims from the death camp, Sobibor, where Demjanjuk allegedly worked, testifying at the trial. Tell us about their role in the trial.

Wittmann: These were all children of people who had died in Sobibor. They were almost entirely from the Netherlands because Demjanjuk is accused of being there [at Sobibor] when transports came mostly from the Netherlands. They were asked very dryly by the judge, "what happened, why are you here?" Each would say, "I lost my mother and my father and my sister," or something like that. All of them were hidden children; taken in and hidden by gentiles during the war, and they survived that way.

One man was quite emotional. His father told him that he had received a letter from his mother. The letter was thrown out of a cattle car on the way to Sobibor. Someone found it and threw it in the mail. The letter said she was going off to the east to be resettled. It seemed that she had some kind of sense that she was going to die.

He became very emotional holding up the letter. You could see this permanent life-long trauma that had occurred to someone who was two years old and didn't even remember his mother. But it was still so painful for him to think of her demise.

The trial context is a very different kind of context for witnesses than memoir writing or giving an interview for the Holocaust museum in Washington. The trial has this sense of officiality; that they are getting their stories out and it's going to be taken seriously by a legal system.

CBC: What is the interest level in Germany on the part of ordinary people and the media?

Wittmann: For one day it was all over every single paper. Some papers were much more introspective than others, speaking about this problem with putting on trial, for what will be the last German Nazi trial, of a non-German. It's an incredibly varied reaction; either "this needs to happen, good thing it continues," to "I can't believe this is still continuing, why are we still doing this? He's an old man let him go," to disinterest. And I would say for the vast majority, the trial falls into the last category.

CBC: There have been a lot of German Nazi war crimes trials over the years. De-Nazification of German society proved really difficult. You describe in your research how, in the earlier German war crimes trials of the 1960s and 1970s, Nazis got off lightly, often with sentences of just four years. Can you explain this?

Wittmann: When the West German judicial system started dealing with Nazi crimes, which they made a very concerted effort to do, they had all sorts of choices about how they were going to try these people. The Allies had used these international criminal charges; which we know to include war crimes (crimes against humanity, crimes against peace).

In Germany they said, "We are not doing that. We are not going to introduce laws that were not existent at the time that these things happened. So, crimes against humanity wasn't a charge then, we can't make it a charge now."

[Germany decided to use its own penal code dating back to 1871] And lo and behold, when you look at the legal theorists who are defining the laws, many, many, many, many of them are people who had been Nazi judges and lawyers. And they decide that the way someone will be convicted of murder is if they show individual initiative and if they show a certain kind of intention; sadism, sexual drive, excessive cruelty, or base motives. So think about it -- it's very, very hard to get anybody on any of these things unless they are complete animals.

So they end up with this entirely subjective definition of murder as opposed to 'he who pulls the trigger is he who wills the trigger be pulled.'

CBC: So with that in mind, did Germany ever really come to terms with its war crimes?

Wittmann: Absolutely not, through the legal system. The legal system is a failure at it. The only thing that happens is that at something like the Auschwitz trial you have prosecutors who are frustrated with this system, and so they try to get around it by getting an indictment written that includes a 300-page history of Auschwitz and the SS. And that becomes public and is published as a book later, and they become determined to unearth the horrors of what Auschwitz was.

CBC: So from the postwar period to now there were hundreds of thousands of Nazis in Germany who were never prosecuted?

Wittmann: Absolutely. There were eight million party members in Germany after the [Second World] War. The question became what do we do with all these people? And how guilty are they? And who are they? 

[W.Z. How many "hundreds of thousands" of Americans, Brits, French, Russians, Israelis, etc. have not been prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace?]

There is a very flimsy de-Nazification process that goes on whereby people who are caught are told to fill out a questionnaire. They are either given six months in prison or they are given community service. Or, if it looks like they did some bad things, they are put on trial.

The Americans put lots of people on trial in postwar divided Germany when they were occupying it. They had a very high level of conviction. Then in 1951, there is a massive wholesale amnesty of virtually everybody because they have a new enemy: the Soviets. It becomes all about no longer punishing Germany, because Germany is right on the frontline of the Cold War. They [the Americans] have to very quickly turn these enemies into allies. They start wholesale amnestying everyone and say, "Okay, now help us."

CBC: This is often described as the last great Nazi war crimes trial, why?

Wittmann: It's because of the age of these people. They are all going to be in their 90s. They constantly have to break off these trials because these people are too old to stand trial.

And because it's Demjanjuk; because he's famous already, because he was already tried in Israel. [He's] the only other Nazi to be tried and sentenced to death in Israel besides Adolph Eichmann. [Demjanjuk was sentenced in the 1980s but appealed his sentence and was released from prison because Israel's Supreme Court judged there wasn't enough evidence to prove he was the infamous "Ivan the Terrible" at Treblinka Camp. The current case asserts that he was, in fact, a guard at the German death camp, Sobibor].

But it's a strange trial because he's not German. For example, one of the people whose testimony is being used against him was one of his superiors, who is German, and who did much worse things, and who has already been tried and spent two years in prison, so he can't be retried.

CBC: Demjanjuk has got off because of mistaken identity once before. What's the evidence against him this time?

Wittmann: He's being charged with aiding and abetting the deaths of 27,900 people. They figured out the months that he was there in 1942 to 1943, and which transports came in. Sobibor was a death camp. People who came there were slaughtered immediately. It was a factory of murder. And so they deduced that as someone who participated in the machinery of running a death camp is guilty of aiding and abetting death.

CBC: What is your prediction of what he'll get?

Wittmann: He's either going to die before the trial ends, or he'll get 15 years, something like that, and be in a hospital prison.

CBC: Tell us about Sobibor.

Wittmann: Sobibor is among a few camps that were in Poland quite hidden away. They were part of something called the Operation Reinhart Camps.

These were camps where people were brought in and exterminated. The vast number of people who died did not get a number so they could be identified. They were just brought in and gassed. It didn't last that many months, so there are discrepancies about how many people were murdered there, but it's a quarter million people, give or take.

CBC: There was a rare revolt by Jewish prisoners at Sobibor in 1943. About 150 Jews escaped. And at least one of those survivors is in the courtroom observing the Demjanjuk trial. Tell us about that revolt in 1943.

Wittmann: Sobibor wasn't guarded by that many guards. There was a higher ratio of prisoners to guards. When people started to understand what was happening to them, they started to revolt. It's a terrifying act to engage in, because the Germans were so good at collective punishment, which was if one person did something, 300 people were shot for it. These revolts come when people realize that it doesn't matter, we're all going to be murdered anyway.

When I saw Sobibor in 2001 it was nothing but woods. There was virtually nothing but a statue. This was common for death camp areas. Now there are memorials, but they were generally crumbling and forgotten. Sobibor is on the easternmost border of Poland and very easy to miss in the lush green forests. It quickly becomes a place of disappearance; not only of Jewish life, but of Jewish death.

CBC: Your own history as to how you became interested in this subject is intriguing. Your parents are both German and left Germany in disgust after the war. Can you describe how this situation drove your scholarship?

Wittmann: My father was part of the leftist [Communist?] intellectual generation who went to university in the 1950s. His father died on the Russian front in 1942. My father found himself wanting to know more about what had happened during that period because the '50s was a decade of total silence. You can count on one hand the number of books that came out then that talk about the Holocaust or the murder of the Jews. A big part of the problem as far as many people of my Dad's generation saw it, was that all of these Nazis were back in their old positions. In the university, it [the war] wasn't taught there. 1933 to 1945 was not a topic of history. He felt that all of his doctors, lawyers, neighbours were old Nazis. His mother wouldn't tell him anything. He knew that his father was a [Nazi] Party member. But he wasn't clear if his father was a convinced Nazi or if he joined the party because he thought that as a civil servant he should.

He became more and more oppressed in this society where he felt that most of the grumbling was about how "we suffered just as much and why are we being punished," instead of accepting responsibility for the atrocities. He left Germany in 1958 to go to the United States and suddenly felt as though he could exhale.

[W.Z. Could her father -- and by extention, Ms. Wittmann -- be categorized as a self-hating German?]

I was born in Canada in 1970. I will always remember going back to Germany and my father always bringing his mother books about the Holocaust and putting them down and saying "read this and learn this." And the people he knew of his parents' generation were saying, "we didn't know anything, we weren't political." [W.Z. It is very likely that most Germans were unaware of the "Holocaust".]

I was fascinated with the history from the very beginning. But I also felt shame and no connection to Germany at all. When I did my research for the Auschwitz trial book [Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial, 2005] in Frankfurt, I fell into a very deep depression. I was listening to the tapes of the trial eight hours a day, survivors testifying in my ear.  [W.Z. Self-brainwashing?] 

In constantly returning to this place that my parents left, I have discovered what for me was the most important moment. It is in the late 1960s and early 1970s when [my father's] generation say, "we're not doing this anymore," and engage in the student revolutions. The real change comes through literary and cinematic and intellectual and journalistic discussion.

I'm starting to feel like these trials had to be colossal failures for the actual change to happen, for the next generation to say this is all wrong. Because now Germany is a place that deals with it like no other. This trial is not an example of that. But the rest of societal confrontation with the past is constant. It's in the paper every day still.

[W.Z. Is Germany coming to terms with its complicity in the genocide of the Palestinians?]

What other country has a massive two-football-field-sized memorial to its own criminal activity in the centre of its capital? Germany has been at the forefront of dealing with its own guilt. But it comes very late, in the 1970s and 1980s, and it does not come through the legal system.

But what trial will ever atone for crimes of such magnitude? It's not possible.