A Very Ordinary Henchman: Demjanjuk Trial to Break Legal Ground in Germany

By Georg Bönisch, and

Part 2: Sadists or Pitiful Old Men?

In the trials conducted in Hagen, West Germany, in 1965-66, against former SS men who had served at Sobibor, only one defendant was given a life sentence: Karl Frenzel, the camp director, a gruesome sadist who had whipped a dying prisoner and shot him personally. Five defendants received prison terms of between three and eight years, and five others were acquitted.

Karl Streibel, the commandant of the Trawniki training camp, was tried in a Hamburg court from 1972 to 1976. He and five other defendants, all senior members of the camp administration, went unpunished. The judges argued that the Trawniki trainers had not been aware of the purpose for which they were training the foreign workers -- a somewhat dubious interpretation of their tasks.

If it was already so difficult to bring the men who had been higher up the chain of command to justice, then how are the courts expected to deal with a man like Demjanjuk, a captured member of the Red Army who was apparently recruited by the SS in 1942?

The Trawnikis -- as the men trained at the camp of that name are known -- were undoubtedly among the "most notorious offenders of World War II," says Hamburg historian Frank Golczewski. Many profited shamelessly from the death camps, using money and gold taken from the murdered prisoners to pay for sex with women in the surrounding villages.

And yet, says Peter Black, chief historian at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, one cannot conclude that these men volunteered to commit mass murder. The conditions in the Nazi prisoner-of-war camps were so horrific, according to Black, that the men "had limited options." The non-German volunteers were at the lowest end of the hierarchy. If they refused to cooperate, says Black, "they could be shot on the spot," at least until the spring of 1943.

Helge Grabitz, a well-known Hamburg criminal prosecutor who has since died, also believed that the Trawnikis were "coerced." They volunteered, according to Grabitz, "to escape certain death from starvation, freezing to death or epidemics in the camps." The "proven inhuman atrocities" could hardly be attributed to individual offenders, she wrote, making criminal prosecution "relatively difficult."

Neither Canada nor Britain nor Australia managed to convict former Trawnikis who had immigrated to those countries.

In the Demjanjuk case, Germany now hopes to improve on that record, while at the same time establishing stricter benchmarks.

Decades of Failure

Nevertheless, investigators are dealing with a case overshadowed by 30 years of failure on the part of jurists on several continents. "Germany stumbled into these matters," says Demjanjuk's son, John Jr. The senior Demjanjuk has been "paraded through a variety of countries like a dancing bear," says Ed Nishnic, Demjanjuk's former son-in-law. Nishnic fears that the German proceedings will amount to a "show trial," as has already happened once before.

In 1987, Demjanjuk was put on trial in Israel after being extradited by US authorities. Survivors of the Treblinka death camp had recognized him in a photograph and identified him as a guard nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible." Even in Treblinka, a hellish place where 900,000 people died, the guard had stood out as a monster. He used his bayonet to slice off the breasts of doomed women, and he started the motor from which the exhaust gases were piped into the gas chambers.

But the case ended in an acquittal on appeal, after a lower court had already sentenced Demjanjuk to death by hanging. A TV reporter for the American CBS network tracked down a woman in a village near Treblinka who admitted to having been a lover of Ivan the Terrible. The woman claimed that the sadistic guard's surname was Marchenko, and both guards and survivors from the camp later confirmed that this was true. The Israeli prosecutor Michael Shaked found evidence in Russian and German archives that destroyed his own case. The survivors had been mistaken. Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible.

In 1993, after several years in solitary confinement, he was acquitted and returned to the United States, which reinstated his citizenship, setting a precedent in the history of American public administration.

It was a bitter setback for the US Justice Department. Its Office of Special Investigations (OSI), created in 1979 "to investigate and prosecute participants in World War II-era acts of Nazi-sponsored persecution," had spearheaded Demjanjuk's extradition to Israel. Now the OSI investigators were forced to admit, in a court investigation, that they had "acted on a preconception" and had "deceived" the courts by withholding two pieces of testimony and a list of camp guards that documented the true identity of Ivan the Terrible.

But the OSI won the next round in the decades-long legal battle, and Demjanjuk lost his US passport once again. Ukraine and Poland refused to accept Demjanjuk. But then the Germans stepped in. A few months later, investigators in the southwestern city of Ludwigsburg began conducting their research.

The prosecution in Munich has now inherited a host of old files containing contradictory opinions and snippets of source materials that have been analyzed again and again. The allegations are based exclusively on documents; potential witnesses are long dead. The only man still alive who believes to have identified Demjanjuk claims that the two men worked as guards together at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria.

Although inmates there also died horrible deaths, Flossenbürg is unimportant to the prosecution. They are focusing on Sobibor, which was purely an extermination camp. Anyone who was assigned to Sobibor, the prosecutors argue, was automatically an accessory to murder.

The evidence of Demjanjuk's presence in Sobibor are long known. Chief among them is his SS identification card, which bears the number 1393. And then there is the testimony of Ignat Danilchenko, a Soviet Trawniki who is now dead, who testified against Demjanjuk in 1949 and 1979. Danilchenko claimed that he had seen Demjanjuk, an "experienced and efficient guard," driving Jews into the gas chambers at Sobibor, and that this was his "daily work." Demjanjuk's name also appears on a roster of guards being transferred from Trawniki to Sobibor.

The defense, which will attempt to call the documents into question, sees an abundance of potential holes in the prosecution's case. For instance, the Munich public prosecutor's office neglected to have the SS identification card, which has already been examined multiple times, subjected to forensic analysis one more time in Germany. In March, experts with the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation concluded, after a relatively superficial examination of the document, that it is "possible" that the ID card is genuine. This weak conclusion will hardly suffice to conclusively discredit theories that the card was forged.

Demjanjuk's defense attorney has uncovered a third statement by the witness Danilchenko that contradicts his other testimony. In 1947, Danilchenko claimed that he had spent most of the war in a German hospital near Rivne in western Ukraine. There is no mention of Sobibor, although by mentioning Sobibor Danilchenko would also have incriminated himself.

This example illustrates the back-and-forth of petitions and defense pleas that will likely dominate the coming days and weeks. Nazi war crimes trials tend to be exhausting and drawn-out affairs -- as well as being a delicate issue. The defendants can easily be portrayed as pitiful old men who are being mercilessly pursued.

This effect could also materialize in the Demjanjuk case, the more it becomes evident that he is to atone for a crime for which many others escaped punishment. Even the investigators now concede that "Demjanjuk was unlucky."

That is one side of the truth. But German historian Norbert Frei points to another side of the truth that prosecutors can hardly ignore, despite their justifiable objections. "The Germans owe it not just to the victims and the survivors, but also to themselves, to prosecute Demjanjuk," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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