German trial is new twist in Demjanjuk saga
Berlin: John Demjanjuk once was the focus of the world's attention for the bloodcurdling crimes he stood accused of. Today, he's attracting notice for being the lowest-ranking person to go on trial for Nazi crimes in World War II.
The latest chapter in a 32-year legal saga brings the retired Ohio autoworker to a court in Munich in a case opening Monday that breaks new ground in Germany's pursuit of alleged Holocaust perpetrators.
If successful, it could significantly lower the bar for who is considered important enough to go to jail for being part of the Nazi apparatus.
In the 1980s, Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel accused of being the notoriously brutal guard "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was convicted, sentenced to death — then freed when an Israeli court overturned the ruling saying the evidence showed he was the victim of mistaken identity.
Now, at age 89, he is accused of serving as a low-ranking guard at the Sobibor death camp, charged with being an accessory to the murders of 27,900 people during the time he is alleged to have been there.
Demjanjuk maintains he was a victim of the Nazis — first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions.
German prosecutors paint a different picture. After Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was in German captivity, they maintain, he volunteered to serve with the fanatical German SS and was posted to Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland.
It is the first time prosecutors have tried someone so allegedly low-ranking without proof of a specific offence. If Demjanjuk is convicted, other low-ranking suspects could face prosecution.
"This definitely marks a change in the decades-old policies of the German judiciary — a positive change," said Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
Immediately after the war, top Nazis such as Hermann Goering were convicted at war-crimes trials run by the Allied powers. Investigations of the lower ranks eventually fell to German courts.
Many of those trials ended with short sentences, or acquittal, of suspects in greater positions of responsibility than Demjanjuk allegedly had. Demjanjuk is accused of having served as a "Wachmann," a guard, the lowest rank of the "Hilfswillige" volunteers who were subordinate to German SS men.
For example, Karl Streibel — the commandant of the SS Trawniki training camp where Demjanjuk allegedly was trained — was tried in Hamburg but acquitted in 1976 after the judges ruled it hadn't been proven that he knew what the guards being trained would be used for.
But today's judges grew up in the 19550s and 1960s and recently have approached war crimes cases differently from their predecessors.
In August, the same court that will hear Demjanjuk's case convicted Josef Scheungraber, a former German officer, of murder for the massacre of 10 civilians in Italy in 1944 even though no witness saw him give the order.
There are no direct living witnesses in Demjanjuk's case either — but prosecutors argue that if he was a guard at the death camp, that necessarily means he was involved in the death machinery.
"In the early 1950s there were certainly some mistakes made, and sometimes there may have been an agenda behind it," said Kurt Schrimm, head of the special German prosecutors' office responsible for investigating Nazi-era crimes.
"One must remember, however, that our office has embarked since its founding in 1958 into completely uncharted territory," he added. "It is unique that a people pursues their own crimes over decades, and we are always learning more."
Demjanjuk's family argues that there is pressure from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the US Justice Department and others to try him.
"I think they're going to push forward to have the trial no matter what, to have the media event and make it seem like Germany is doing what it can to hunt down and prosecute so-called Nazi war criminals," John Demjanjuk Jr said, adding that his father suffers from a bone marrow disease and could only have months to live.
Schrimm said it was not until 2008, when his prosecutors' office found lists of Jews transported to Sobibor during the time Demjanjuk was allegedly there, that there was enough evidence to pursue a case against him in Germany. Now, he said, there is an obligation to proceed with the trial.
"It is naturally difficult to deal with men who are soon in their 90th year," Schrimm said. "But there are no doubts: The lawmakers decided in 1979 to remove the statute of limitations for murder, and therefore I see no reason to treat this case any differently."
Proving the case is another matter.
Demjanjuk maintains he was never at the camp and questions the authenticity of one of the prosecution's main pieces of evidence — an SS identity card that they say features a photo of a young, round-faced Demjanjuk and that says he worked at Sobibor.