The trials of former Nazis ushered in a new era of criminal prosecution, shifting blame for wrongdoing from the individual to the state; along the way, new concepts were coined, like “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”
Beginning at Nuremberg, the idea of the state being a perpetrator of evil rather than a protector of society paved the way for convictions in the United States, Israel, and Germany of Nazis for committing war crimes. According to legal scholar Lawrence Douglas, the concept of collective guilt is built on documented historical evidence of atrocities allowing individuals to be convicted without direct evidence linking them to their participation in the atrocities.
Using this “simple, but brilliant” legal strategy, a German court was able to gain a conviction of a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, bringing to an end one of the “most convoluted and lengthy legal cases to arise from crimes of the Holocaust,” said Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Douglas spoke Sept. 14 at the annual Raoul Wallenberg lecture for Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, held at Livingston College Center in Piscataway. The author of The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, Douglas focused on the legal proceedings that led to the 2011 conviction in Germany of the 91-year-old Demjanjuk for his actions as a guard at Sobibor. Demjanjuk appealed the conviction but died the following year in a German nursing home.
Born Ivan Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian holds the distinction of being the only person in history to be twice stripped of his American citizenship for lying about his wartime activities on his citizenship application.
Douglas, who covered Demjanjuk’s German trial for Harper’s Magazine, said Demjanjuk had been drafted into the Soviet Army and was captured by the Germans in 1942; he was eventually sent to Trawniki, a training camp for guards in the extermination camps. Following the war, Demjanjuk went to a series of displaced persons’ camps, immigrated to the United States in 1952, and became a citizen six years later. He Americanized his first name, married, had children, and became a middle-class auto plant machinist in suburban Cleveland.
According to Douglas, in 1975 the Department of Justice uncovered evidence leading them to believe Demjanjuk was the infamous “Ivan the Terrible,” a “sociopathic and sadistic monster” at Treblinka. After a lengthy investigation and trial, in 1981 Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship and deported to Israel, where he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1988, largely on survivor testimony. Douglas said that unlike mugging victims who get only a fleeting glance of their attackers, survivors insisted, “I saw this man day after day. I will never forget the face of Ivan the Terrible.” But, he added, “They were all wrong.”
As Demjanjuk sat in an Israeli prison awaiting appeal, the fall of the former Soviet Union uncovered previously unavailable documents that proved that the real Ivan the Terrible was a guard named Ivan Marchenko. These developments led to the Israeli Supreme Court’s overturning of Demjanjuk’s conviction in 1993; his citizenship restored, Demjanjuk returned to the United States.
But even though Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, according to Douglas, he was still “Ivan the not so hot.” Newly found documents revealed that Demjanjuk was at Sobibor, which, Douglas said, along with Belzec and Treblinka, were the only “pure death camps,” where every guard participated in the extermination of Jews. Based on this evidence, new denaturalization proceedings were launched, and in 2002, Demjanjuk again lost his citizenship. Following failed appeals, he was sent to Germany in 2009 and immediately arrested.
To avoid a reoccurrence of the previous court case in Jerusalem, Douglas said, the Germans eschewed reliance on survivor testimony. Using only testimony from historians, prosecutors were able to get a conviction “without any evidence whatsoever of Demjanjuk’s specific behavior at Sobibor.”
That legal maneuvering laid out a picture of a man who could have deserted from his guard job, as one of the five guards did, without serious consequences if caught, but stayed in a place where every guard was part of “the killing machine” that was Sobibor.
That, said Douglas, allowed prosecutors to show his presence at the death camp, which was enough to prove Demjanjuk’s guilt.