Seventy years after the crimes, any trial of former Nazis and their collaborators will be an imperfect exercise at best. The victims and most of the witnesses are dead, the perpetrators frail, and the chain of evidence hard to demonstrate. For all that, and because of that, whatever justice can still be done must be done.
From this perspective, the trial of John Demjanjuk was a rather satisfactory conclusion to a terrible story. It is true, as my fellow blogger, Professor Motyl, points out, that the Munich District Court was unable to convict Demjanjuk of any direct responsibility for any death at the Sobibor killing facility. (Sobibor, contrary to Professor Motyl’s description, was no concentration camp. There were few camping there or being concentrated. It was an extermination facility. Its sole purpose was to murder the people brought in under guard by Mr. Demjanjuk and his colleagues as quickly and as efficiently as possible.) Yet the assumption the court made, that by being there and doing his job Mr. Demjanjuk was at best an accessory to mass murder, was perfectly safe. The misleading comparisons Professor Motyl makes to East German border guards and the guards at Abu Ghraib are a sad exercise in moral relativism. The simple difference is that unlike in the above situations there was no way for Mr. Demjanjuk to have been uninvolved in or ignorant of the murders. The record is clear: About 180,000 Jews were killed in Sobibor. About 40 survived. The death rate was 99.98 percent. Only the few people in command of the facility were Germans. The death factory itself was operated by former Soviet POWs like Mr. Demjanjuk, trained in the infamous camp at Trawniki.
Admittedly, Mr. Demjanjuk’s wartime record came as a result of a tragic dilemma of unimaginable proportions. The choice he faced was basically between death by starvation in a Nazi POW camp for captured Soviet soldiers and becoming an accessory to murder in a death factory. The fact that he chose the latter to escape the former does not make him innocent but might entitle him to compassion and place him in the realm of moral complexity people like us who never had to face it cannot possibly appreciate. The leniency of the court should be understood in this way rather than as an apportionment of a price for the lives of the victims. What is at question here is whether the guilt itself does not constitute enough of a punishment, not guilt as such.
If Mr. Demjanjuk cited the circumstances of his imprisonment and recruitment in his defense, he would have brought the moral dilemmas of the killing fields into a sharp relief for the present generations and made a real contribution. If he acknowledged the horror and showed remorse, he would be entitled to our sympathy, perhaps respect. He would still have walked free to be alone with his memories for the rest of his life. But he chose otherwise; he chose to claim he was not there, that he was innocent, that he was framed, that this particular fragment of history with him being a part of it never happened. In this, he is not much different from all the other Holocaust deniers. The court did not believe him; there is nothing more to it. Chort z nym!, as one of the comments on Professor Motyl’ s article suggests, is a good epitaph for such a man.