New York Times | 16May2011 | Deborah E. Lipstadt

Demjanjuk in Munich

LAST week a German court in Munich found John Demjanjuk guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, one for each of the Jews exterminated during the six months that he worked as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. The Demjanjuk trial will probably be the last Holocaust war crimes trial to grab the world’s attention.

For many, especially those in younger generations, the trial against Mr. Demjanjuk, a 91-year-old former Ohio autoworker now confined to a wheelchair, may seem the awkward fulfillment of the notion that history plays itself out first as tragedy, then as farce. Coincidentally, this year is the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a case that, in its significance, appears to dwarf the Demjanjuk proceedings.

But while Eichmann did play a larger role in the Holocaust than Mr. Demjanjuk, we must resist the conclusion that one is more significant than the other. Indeed, the Demjanjuk trial, as much as the Eichmann case, has volumes to teach us about the complex relationship between genocide and justice.

The Demjanjuk case matters, above all, because there was never much doubt that he had been a vicious prison guard under the Nazis. After living for more than 30 years in the United States, he was deported to Israel in 1986, where he was tried and sentenced to death. Unfortunately, prosecutors had misidentified him as a guard at the Treblinka camp known as Ivan the Terrible, and Mr. Demjanjuk was released in 1993.

What followed was 16 years of legal wrangling as Mr. Demjanjuk, now back in the United States, fought efforts to retry or deport him. Finally, Germany succeeded in extraditing him in 2009. Last week’s decision, then, was proof that the rule of law works, however slowly.

Of course, it’s that slow pace that had many asking why Germany was bothering to try Mr. Demjanjuk in the first place. Wasn’t there something comic, even shameful, about dragging a dying man across the Atlantic to stand trial for a crime he committed over a half century ago? Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on even the most heinous crimes?

No, and the trial reaffirms that society rejects that idea. Those who participate in genocide, in whatever capacity, should never rest easy. Nor should they assume that if they delay justice enough, their case will be abandoned. This lesson may matter more today than ever: after all, the hunt for Holocaust killers may be over, but the hunt for those who practiced genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and far too many other places must continue.

The Demjanjuk trial also underlines the lessons learned from Eichmann. Like Mr. Demjanjuk, Eichmann claimed he was only a small cog in the wheel. Both men argued that they did not have the choice to say no; it was kill or be killed.

However, as Hannah Arendt argued in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” every machine part is of crucial importance. Removing a small cog has the same impact as removing a large one: the machine stops working. Both men could have said no with few consequences; no defense lawyer or historian has found evidence of someone being killed for refusing to participate in the Holocaust. But these men chose not to refuse.

True, the outcomes for the two men will be different: Eichmann was the only person in Israel’s history to be executed; Mr. Demjanjuk will probably die in his bed as his lawyers appeal his sentence.

But what happened at both of these trials is more important than the ultimate fates of the guilty. Now as then, the victims were given a chance to tell their story, not in a book, interview or speech, but in a court of law. At the Eichmann trial close to 100 witnesses testified about their suffering. At the Demjanjuk trial we heard from the victims’ children. They joined the prosecutor in pointing their fingers at the man who facilitated their parents’ murders. In other words, the Demjanjuk trial proves that while Eichmann himself may be history, the robust process that made Holocaust trials into something more than mere court proceedings is still effective.

And finally, the Demjanjuk case, by its very complexity, is a fitting coda to the Eichmann trial because it reminds us that adjudicating genocide is, like the act itself, rarely straightforward. These cases raise difficult questions about how to punish different types of participation in a genocide; does a guard who carried it out deserve more or less punishment than a bureaucrat who planned it?

These trials do not ever truly offer closure, even decades after the crime. Indeed, cases like Mr. Demjanjuk’s are in some sense only the beginning of a process of reckoning and understanding, a process whose burden now falls not on the courts, but on the rest of us.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University and the author of “The Eichmann Trial.”


From: D.R.
Date: Sun, May 22, 2011 at 5:42 AM
Subject: RE: commentary on the Demjanjuk trial
To: Skytalets
Cc: A. S.

If ever there was a poster girl for double standards, I believe we have found her in Deborah Lipstadt.
A paragon of objectivity she is not in her commentary on the Demjanjuk trial.
Change the names and places and rearrange the facts so that they hit closer to home (but without altering the essential legal and moral issues) and (I suspect) she would be the first to scream...well, you know what.
She matter-of-factly equates Demjanjuk's "significance" to that of Eichmann (the lowest of the low and the highest of the high on the scale of accountability) and without a shred of evidence glibly asserts that "there was never much doubt that he had been a vicious prison guard under the Nazis." (emphasis added). With that kind of certainty, who needs evidence or a real (as opposed to show) trial to elicit, test and then confirm it?
It apparently matters not a whit to Lipstadt that the sole evidence against Demjanjuk was Soviet in origin, consisting of the untested, uncross-examined testimony of a long since departed Soviet citizen claiming (in circumstances unknown) to have been a camp guard at Sobibor and of knowing a guard there of the same name as Demjanjuk; and a Trawniki ID card which, if authentic, would, at most, have established that Demjanjuk trained as a concentration camp guard at Trawniki. We know that the same ID card was relied upon heavily in the lower courts in Israel to convict Demjanjuk of being Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. Until, that is, it was established in the Supreme Court of Israel that Demjanjuk was not, in fact, ever at Treblinka and, thus, was not and could not have been the mass murderer the Israelis were seeking. The fact that very early on (in 1985 to be precise) the FBI itself cast doubt on the authenticity of the KGB-produced Trawniki ID card was not even considered worthy of mention by Lipstadt. For heaven's sake, besides these two flimsiest of documentary foundations, neither of which should ever have been admitted into, much less given any weight in, a court of law, neither the Germans nor the Israelis could provide a scintilla of evidence of their own to support the conjecture that Demjanjuk was at any time a guard at Sobibor.
Yet, reading Lipstadt, one could be forgiven for believing that -- contrary to what the entire world knows -- the KGB never lies (unless, of course, the incriminating information is directed at....well, you know who).
Moreover, the ease with which she accepts, even defends, the legal hypothesis of guilt by (purported) association (evidently for all, including interned prisoners of war), is breath-taking. According to the KGB, Demjanjuk was at Sobibor, ergo, he was complicit in the murder of every single individual who perished in that camp while he was there. What? Surely that test includes kapos of every ethnicity. And what of every single person of higher authority at the camp, that being literally everyone in the command structure? Lipstadt does not even mention their culpability.
What she does say is quite astonishing: "no defense lawyer or historian has found evidence of someone being killed for refusing to participate in the Holocaust". In other words, if Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor, all he had to do to save himself from moral culpability upon discovering what his chores entailed was to submit his resignation to the appropriate authorities, at no risk to life or limb.
Well, mirabile dictu! Who would have thought!  Is one then to presume that the millions of Soviet POWs the Germans murdered outright or simply starved to death, including those that declined the opportunity to train for and then serve as concentration camp guards, were a figment of our collective imagination? That it never happened? That the captured Soviets facing certain death who were then offered the chance to serve as camp guards seized the opportunity knowing that they could always back-out later without significant penalty? Or, to take another pretty obvious example, one would have thought that the act of hiding Jews from the Nazis would constitute "refusing to participate in the Holocaust". I guess not, since, according to Lipstadt, no one in all of Europe who hid Jews from the Nazis was ever killed for it when found out. Not a single person.
The things you learn from Op Ed pieces in the NY Times written by Professors of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies!
Here's what I learned:
Demjanjuk is Ukrainian. A KGB-produced Trawniki identity card purportedly links Demjanjuk to a WWII SS concentration guard training facility in Poland. KGB-supplied testimony of a long since deceased individual -- who may or may not have ever existed and -- who allegedly testified/confessed to being a guard at Sobibor, places a man named Ivan Demjanjuk at Sobibor in the capacity of a camp guard at the same time. From this a German court concluded, and Lipstadt -- without hesitation, moral qualms or equivocation -- agrees, that Demjanjuk was obviously, self-evidently and without question an accessory to mass murder and genocide.
Indeed, Lipstadt, in her own words, never doubted it.
Here's what else I learned:
Lipstadt's views, and the moral asymmetries underpinning them, are beyond contempt.