For those who have dedicated their lives to bringing to justice the Third Reich’s war criminals and their collaborators, the odds of success dwindle with each passing year. Last month, John (Ivan) Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born auto worker who first arrived in the United States in 1951, was deported to Germany to stand trial for his role as a guard in the Sobibor concentration camp. The upcoming trial is likely to become the emblematic case for our own time. Much like Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, which forced the world to confront the fact that numerous Nazis escaped prosecution and punishment after the war, Demjanjuk’s case deserves attention.
Demjanjuk, now eighty-nine, has been through this before. In 1986 he was extradited to Israel to stand trial for being ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ a notorious camp guard in Treblinka. Initially found guilty and sentenced to death, the verdict was overturned when insufficient evidence was given to prove the accusations. Returning to the U.S. in 1993, Demjanjuk continued his legal battle against government officials seeking his deportation, which ended unsuccessfully when he was extradited to Germany this past May. Since German courts determined that he was physically fit to stand trial, formal charges will be filed later this month. In all likelihood, this will be the last time that someone accused of direct responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust will have to defend himself in court.
Because of the serious accusations against him—namely of being an accessory to the 29,000 deaths at Sobibor—and the fact that we are now in the seventh decade since the end of the war, it is hard not to inject a sense of drama into situation. One can’t help but wonder if it is possible that this man, of all people, has come to represent the official conclusion of a dark chapter in European history. Of course, it is not nearly all that simple: Whether or not Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor, the unfortunate truth is that the Nazis could count on many willing collaborators in the occupied territories of the East. There are likely to be many individuals still alive today—not only in Europe but all over the world—who participated in the deportations and mass killings. The relative ease with which collaborators were able to return to their daily lives and merge back into postwar society remains one of the most unsettling aspects of the entire story.
What complicates matters further, and has become a central problem that moral philosophy has grappled with in the wake of the Holocaust, is the very question of complicity and responsibility. Regardless of whose side of the story you want to believe—Demjanjuk’s or the prosecution’s—it is all but certain that he was initially a Red Army soldier who was captured during the German invasion. Details get sketchy from there, but it is well known that many POW’s willingly volunteered their services in the camps and that the Nazis had no qualms about putting this foreign labor directly to use. Considering the high rate of POW deaths from starvation and overworking, it is certainly possible that Demjanjuk saw his only chance for survival by becoming a Wachmann. If this was indeed the case, it highlights the inverted reality of the camps, where criminal behavior was rewarded, and the breakdown of all notions of morality became part of the instituted order, determining the slim margin between life and death.
Bavaria’s state Justice Minister Beate Merk claimed, “We owe it to the victims to clear it up. Above all in Germany, we have a very special responsibility.” Yet it is precisely the desire to attribute a transcendent significance to the case—for example, that bringing Demjanjuk to justice can somehow initiate a process of reconciliation—that threatens to overshadow the actual matter of determining his guilt. Despite these symbolic overtones, Demjanjuk remains to be tried as an individual, and even a guilty verdict will hardly serve as a moment of redemption or closure for those who lost their lives at Sobibor or any of the other extermination camps across Europe.
In her classic work Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described the prosecution’s repeated attempts to put history on trial: “If the defendant is taken as a symbol and the trial as a pretext to bring up matters which are apparently more interesting than the guilt or innocence of one person,” she argued, “then consistency demands that we bow to the assertion made by Eichmann and his lawyer: that he was brought to book because a scapegoat was needed.” As tempting as it may be to see in Demjanjuk the last opportunity to bring the past to justice, those overseeing his trial would be wise not to let such similar pretensions cloud the reality of the matter at hand.
Rafael Khachaturian is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has previously written on Russian politics for Dissent.