As former Nazi-guard John Demjanjuk is standing trial for his [alleged] role in the killing of almost 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp, there are public voices – besides his court-appointed lawyer’s – asking important questions.
1. Should a man this age (89 in Demjanjuk’s case) still stand trial?
2. Can justice be done if the sentence cannot be by far as severe as the crimes committed?
3. Can Nazi colloraborators be held responsible for committing crimes if doing so supposedly spared their lives?
4. Should German prosecution not rather go after German Nazi criminals? Does the trial against John Demjanjuk not mean double-standards?
5. Should people not “just get over” the past?
The following are my answers to the above questions. They are personal, without a doubt biased, and influenced by the values I was raised with, the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve made in those 30 years of my life. They are not aiming to be an ultimate conclusion or solution of any kind. Feel free to add your views, but please remain civil. Not all topics are made for ego-parades.
1. Yes, I think he should. He was an adult when he [allegedly] committed the crimes. From what I could find, he shows no remorse. Several physicians determined Demjanjuk to be fit for trial. There is no statute of limitations for murder in German law. Differently put, from a technical and legal point-of-view, there’s no reason why Demjanjuk shouldn’t stand trial.
2. What is justice? “An eye for an eye”? Letting criminals get away with their crimes, hoping for some kind of eschatological justice at the end of days? To paraphrase Reich-Ranicki, justice in such cases is not taking revenge but for the world to understand that incredible atrocities happened there.
3. Yes, they can. From many conversations with former Nazi- as well as non-Nazi Wehrmacht members and resistance fighters within and outside the Wehrmacht I know that at the very least soldiers were well-aware that they would not suffer consequences if they refused to partake in the killing of Jews. So far, I’ve seen no compelling evidence that civilians would have been treated differently. Yet, there undeniably were bonuses for those that complied. Maybe there was a subjective fear of that something might happen, but is that enough to forego all human decency? I’m familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, but can people really convincingly claim the norms and values of society failed them when there was a considerable number of those that stood up and said “No,”?
4. I think they should go after German Nazi criminals as well. The trial against John Demjanjuk, hopefully, does not represent double-standards but the one, universal standard that crimes against humanity will never again be condoned on European soil and that those involved in such crimes will have to suffer the consequences, no matter what their nationality, age, sex, social standing, educational background, ethnicity, religious adherence etc. might be. And yes, I’d love to see German Nazi criminals stand trial for what they did. Alas, the Allied denazification attempts ended too early and not all trials came to their conclusion. So particularly higher-rank criminals were let get away with their crimes.
5. No, they should not. The loss of health – physical and mental -, family, friends, careers, property, and human dignity for years on end became an integral part of the lives of those that survived. The survivors have got a right to be heard as long as they want to be heard. For many, sharing their story has become a way of coping with something none of us are fully able to imagine. But that, also, mandates that the memories and the message of warning they serve us as must not be abused, neither by pop-culturists nor by fundraisers.
It is a matter of decency.