Winnipeg Free Press | 17May2011 | Editorial

Not an excuse

John Demjanjuk didn't look much like a war criminal when he was convicted last week in Germany of participating in the killing of 28,060 people in Sobibor, a Nazi concentration camp, during the Second World War.

Demjanjuk is 91 years old, obviously physically frail and in a wheelchair. He declined the judge's invitation to speak before his five-year sentence was handed down, but he has consistently maintained his innocence ever since his American citizenship was revoked in 1981 after Israel accused him of being "Ivan the Terrible," an infamous Nazi death-camp guard.

Demjanjuk claims he was a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1942 when the Germans captured him and he spent most of the rest of the war in a PoW camp.

In Israel he was convicted of being Ivan, but that conviction was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, which found he had been the victim of mistaken identity.

Back in the U.S., he was deported again to Germany where he was finally convicted of being in fact a different Nazi guard. He is appealing that decision as well.

He will await the result of his appeal in a nursing home but, at this stage, the important thing is not whether he can be kept alive long enough to serve his sentence. What will matter in this case is the restating of a precedent for modern warfare -- that "following orders" is not an excuse for committing atrocities. Whether that will make any difference in modern wars as they are fought in the Congo and Libya today is doubtful, but the principle will have been reaffirmed if the verdict on John Demjanjuk is upheld.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2011 A12