Why Demjanjuk should not be tried

However evil the accused, prosecution is counter-productive

By Bernard Josephs, November 27, 2008

German investigators are urging the American authorities to extradite John Demjanjuk, an 88-year-old former Nazi death-camp guard, who was tried and sentenced to death in Israel for appalling war crimes, only to be freed five years later by the country's Supreme Court.

The Germans believe that new evidence, including hundreds of documents and eye-witness statements, prove that he was partly responsible for the massacre of thousands of Jews and that he should face a new trial.

Their evidence appears to be persuasive and their motives are certainly admirable. Indeed, who would not be happy to see the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, who has lived in Detroit since the 1950s, brought to justice?

Yet the effort to try him again is likely to be a seriously misguided exercise. The chances of the court reaching a satisfactory verdict are not high in a hearing that will be both lengthy and divisive. And an acquittal is bound to have unwelcome repercussions.

The prospect of a not-guilty verdict in a retrial certainly troubled Israel's Supreme Court justices when they freed Demjanjuk on appeal in 1993, citing lack of evidence to support accusations that he was the brutal and infamous "Ivan the Terrible", who was in charge of the gas chambers at Treblinka.

An acquittal in a new trial, the Israeli judges decided, would "not be in the public interest" and such a hearing "would violate double jeopardy".

Should it happen now, it would provide encouragement to the sick political fringe that peddles Holocaust denial propaganda.

At a time when the dwindling ranks of ageing Holocaust survivors and their descendents are in great need of support from the community, it is questionable to expend political energy and large sums of money to bring to trial a man who is nearing the end of his life.

Although the monstrous events of the past must never be forgotten, this should not entail the neglect of the present. While Nazi war criminals cannot be forgiven, the fact is that most of them are dead or dying; trying to hunt them down will bring diminishing returns while doing little for their victims.

Cases brought in Britain under the 1991 War Crimes Act suggest that chasing elderly Nazi criminals is a painstaking and often fruitless business. Jon Silverman, who reported on the war crimes issue for the BBC, points out that, of nearly 400 suspected Nazi war criminals believed to have found refuge in Britain and who were investigated, only two were charged and one convicted. Others were considered too ill or too old to stand trial and another developed Alzheimer's disease as his case was being launched.

Staunch supporters of the War Crimes Act seek to justify continued investigations on the premise that Nazi criminals have no right to sleep easily. They have a point. Undoubtedly, if Germany presses ahead with its prosecution, this will cause Demjanjuk nightmares.

As it happens, most of the latter part of his life has been a nightmare. In 1986, having been stripped of his American citizenship, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel and his name was emblazoned in headlines around the globe as he faced charges of being Ivan the Terrible.

I covered his trial, held in a converted Jerusalem theatre, for the London Evening Standard and it gradually became clear to me and others that the Treblinka evidence against him was flimsy. There was documentary proof that Demjanjuk had been a guard at Sobibor, but not that he was Ivan the Terrible - despite heart-rending eye-witness accounts from survivors.

In due course, the question of Demjanjuk's guilt or innocence took second place in the trial to that of the need to educate young Israelis about the Holocaust. One American journalist even suggested that the whole thing was nothing more than a "show trial".

Now the Germans want to try him again. The country's chief Nazi war crimes investigator, Kurt Schrim, says he has evidence that Demjanjuk personally led Jews to the gas chambers in Sobibor. Yet, even if he is found guilty, how many years can Demjanjuk spend behind bars?

There is a danger in all this of the Jewish community taking its eye off the ball. Tracking down elderly war criminals, however evil, involves the use of precious resources that could be devoted to helping the victims, or indeed educating the young about the perils of genocide, racism and the Holocaust.

A long, public examination of a protesting old man whose guilt, at the end of the process, may well not be legally established, could also deflect attention from the urgent need to combat the growing forces of neo-Nazism and racial hatred in countries such as France, Germany and Russia - not to mention the burgeoning far-right in Britain.

This is where the world's efforts should be directed, not towards trying to lock up an 88-year-old Ukrainian whose evil days are far behind him and whose crimes will soon be judged in a much higher court.

Last updated: 11:24am, November 27 2008



Tue, 12/02/2008 - 17:28

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The latter part of Denjanjuk's life might have been a nightmare but at least he had a latter part of his life, unlike so many of the people who died at Sobibor or Treblinka.