Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Secrets of "Ivan the Terrible" Go to the Grave

It was announced on Saturday that John Demjanjuk, the man variously accused as being “Ivan the Terrible” and an evil guard at the Sobibor concentration camp, died at the ripe old age of 91 years old.  He died a free man at a nursing home in southern Germany, awaiting the appeal of his recent conviction of being accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland.  His death has brought to an end a most extraordinary sequence of events which has raised significant doubts about the value of hunting down Nazi murderers and their collaborators.

It is almost certain that Demjanjuk was involved in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.  He admitted that the scar under his armpit was an SS tattoo which he removed after the war.  There continue to be accusations that he was, in fact, the feared “Ivan the Terrible” who operated the diesel engines of the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp, and who tortured and tormented prisoners in his spare time.  A special tribunal at the Jerusalem District Court found Demjanjuk guilty of this charge in 1988, and sentenced him to death as a result (the death sentence is available in Israel only for those found guilty of Nazi war crimes).  It was the Israeli Supreme Court that overturned this conviction in July 1993 on the basis that there was reasonable doubt as to whether the person on trial had been correctly identified as Ivan the Terrible.  The judges agreed that Demjanjuk was probably a Nazi guard at Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenbürg camps.  But this was not the charge that the court had been called upon to adjudicate, and the judges were forced to set him free on the grounds of reasonable doubt on the charge of being Ivan the Terrible.

Demjanjuk returned to his adopted home in Cleveland, Ohio.  The American government, that had previously withdrawn his US citizenship, was forced to reinstate him as a citizen.  Demjanjuk was tried again earlier this year in Munich, accused of being a guard at Sobibor extermination camp.  A total of 27,900 charges of being an accessory to murder were brought against him, one for each man, woman and child who were brutally murdered at the camp.  The trial was something of a spectacle, with the accused being brought into the courtroom each day in a wheelchair and refusing to take any part in the trial.  He was eventually found guilty, and sentenced to 5 years in prison!  He was, however, immediately released having spent two years in prison awaiting trial, and many more years in prison during his trial in Israel.  His defense team had appealed the conviction, and the appeal was in the process of being prepared when he died.

There are many who have questioned the logic of spending years and millions of dollars prosecuting somebody who was a fairly low rung in the Nazi ladder.  It seems as though he was a lowly guard at a death camp, and not one of the key decision-makers driving the “Final Solution”.  Even though he was clearly evil and caused a great deal of suffering and torment for thousands of innocent people, is this enough to justify the enormous effort when there were much bigger fish to fry?  The prosecution of Demjanjuk cannot, for example, be compared to the Eichmann trial.  It did not come close to the spectacle and the importance of the Eichmann trial, largely due to the very senior position that Eichmann held in the Nazi death machine.  There were so many other senior Nazis, who were in the decision-making ranks, and who were never held to account for their appalling behaviour.  So why was this low-level individual pursued for so long, and at such great cost?

I think it was to do with the fact that there was such a substantial failure to bring many of the key Nazi figures to justice.  Except for the Nuremberg trials and Eichmann’s trial, there was little international justice meted out to the architects and operatives of the greatest genocide known to man.  This was despite the untiring efforts of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal and others.  They played an important role in bring to the public’s attention how easily some of the big fish had evaded identification and justice.  When the accusation arose that Demjanjuk could have been the feared “Ivan the Terrible”, he was pursued relentlessly as something of an example to try to show some justice.  Even these attempts ultimately failed, although it did succeed in raising the issue of justice for Nazi war criminals into the public domain again.

One of the reasons that the prosecution of Nazi war criminals was not more widespread, was because the Israeli government decided not to pursue this following the execution of Eichmann.  He was the example that was used to publicly demonstrate some of the atrocities that took place, but the Israeli government chose not to pursue this avenue further.  Instead, the Israeli government decided to use its scarce resources, both financial and intelligence, in the building and the protection of the State of Israel.  In retrospect, this was probably the right decision even though we would have liked to see all war criminals brought to justice.  A choice had to be made, and I believe that the right one was made.

The death of Demjanjuk probably brings this chapter to an end.  It is difficult for me to see the possibility of finding any war criminals still alive, and who could face justice.  Even if such individuals are found, so much time has passed since the crimes were committed that the realistic prospects of a prosecution must be extremely low.  Interest groups have long called for the money that was channelled into searching for war criminals, to be redirected towards providing assistance for the survivors.  For them, this would be money better spent.

Some feel that some sort of revenge was achieved because Demjanjuk was kept on the run for the last 25 years of his life as prosecutors tried, and failed to bring justice for those who suffered by his hands.  I don’t really feel this. The fact that he was able to enjoy such a good life in America in the years following the war, and that he ultimately died a free man, is indication to me that justice was not ultimately served.  I do feel, however, that some revenge was extracted by him living long enough to see how the Jewish people have survived, grown and flourished despite his efforts and those of his collaborators.  I love the fact that he was brought to the State of Israel to stand trial, so that he could see the failure of his endeavours.  This was surely real justice.  I also feel sure that 27,900 souls were waiting for him when his time was up to extract the ultimate justice.

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