Monday, December 21, 2009
Demjanjuk: War Criminal Or War Victim
The world's last big Nazi war crimes trial is underway now in the Bavarian city of Munich.
An 89-year-old former autoworker from Cleveland, John Demjanjuk, is charged with aiding in the murder of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland. Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, denies the charges.
The case is a milestone for Germany. Never before has such a minor figure -- Demjanjuk was allegedly a camp guard -- been charged without a shred of evidence of a specific offence.
The U.S. deported Demjanjuk to Germany in May, despite protests from his son and family that Demjanjuk was too ill for the flight, let alone a trial.
The trial is now ongoing in a Munich courtroom, with sessions no longer than 90 minutes due to Demjanjuk's frail health.
Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, is not the first presumed Nazi helper that the United States has deported to Germany. More than 100 men have had their US citizenship revoked for concealing their Nazi past, and 27 of them ended up in Germany.
This is not the first time, Demjanjuk has faced similar charges.
In 1987, Israel put him in the dock again after his adopted homeland, the United States, stripped him of his citizenship and deported him.
This time, Demjanjuk was not tried as a camp guard at Sobibor. This time he was accused of being the especially sadistic, "Ivan The Terrible", who served at the Treblinka camp.
At first Demjanjuk was found guilty and was set to be executed, like Adolf Eichmann, the only top Nazi leader hanged in Israel.
But in 1993, Israeli judges overturned the decision.
His case was reviewed after evidence turned up last year in KGB archives including statements by Treblinka guards identifying "Ivan the Terrible" as Ivan Marchenko, not Ivan Demjanjuk.
Here, Demjanjuk's lawyer from that trial, Yoram Sheftel, denies Demjanjuk had anything to do with the Holocaust.
Many legal experts are scratching their heads over why Germany why now.
A renowed Dutch professor of criminal law, Christiaan F. Rüter has described the trial as one directed against “the smallest of the small fish.”
Rüter stated: “High ranking officials, officers, commanders have all been able to draw their pensions in peace, now this old man is expected to take the rap for everything.”
The noted French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld admits Demjanjuk was a minor figure, but insists a trial is warranted and that evidence exists to convict Demjanjuk. Here, he speaks with the French AFP news agency.
"But there are written testimonies coming from the ex-Soviet block, such as that of Igor Danilchenko, a former SS guard at Sobibor", he added.
"In 1949, he described the role of his colleague Demjanjuk in the following way: 'As a SS guard, he participated in the mass destruction of Jewish civilians, stopping them from fleeing death, and escorting them to gas chambers, where these people were exterminated by suffocating them with gas'."
John Rosenthal, however, points out even if Demjanjuk was at Sobibor, he was not a Nazi.
But even if this should be true, Demjanjuk was not a Nazi, much less an SS man, as is commonly suggested. Demjanjuk was in fact himself a Red Army soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 and interred at a Soviet POW camp at Chelm in occupied Poland. If Demjanjuk served the Germans at all, he did so as a so-called SS “Hilfswilliger,” which is to say, a “volunteer helper” of the SS.
Moreover, the “voluntary” character of these “volunteers” must be regarded as a highly relative matter. The brutality displayed by the Germans to Soviet prisoners of war is legendary. In keeping with the Nazi disdain for Slavs — or Slavic “sub-humans,” as the Nazis labeled them — captured Red Army soldiers were notoriously permitted to starve to death. It is estimated that over half of the Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans died in captivity.
But now it is the Germans putting a Ukrainian to trial.
That for many Ukrainians is farce at best, outrageous, and immoral, at worse.
Tetiania Djeruk, from Demjanjuk's childhood hometown of Dubovy Makharyntsy, perhaps puts voice best to what many Ukrainians feel.
"It was war then. We weren't the ones who started the war, it was the Germans. Now they want to put a Ukrainian on trial for these crimes!"